‘They don’t respect us’: Backlash in Bali as Russians flee


Bali, Indonesia – Russians have poured into Bali in droves since the invasion of Ukraine.

In Indonesia’s most popular destination, the newcomers seek refuge from the economic fallout of war and the threat of conscription.

They are also facing backlash from locals who are angry at what they see as the growing problem of outsiders taking their jobs.

Earlier this week, Bali Governor Wayan Koster said he had asked the central government in Jakarta to end visa-on-arrival privileges for citizens of Russia and Ukraine amid growing complaints from locals.

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“Why these two countries? These two are at war, so it is unsafe in their country, and they flock to Bali. Many of them come to Bali, not for their free time, but to find comfort, also for work,” Koster said in local media.

Tourism Minister Sandiaga Uno said he would review the governor’s request while leaving open the possibility that the number of those “acting up and causing problems” may not be significant.

While nearly 60,000 Russians arrived in Bali last year, about 20,000 have been arriving each month since the Kremlin declared a partial mobilization of military reservists in September, according to figures from Bali International Airport.

Some have gone on to work on the island as hairdressers, babysitters, taxi drivers or even sex workers, often, authorities say, without a legally required work visa.

While the number of Ukrainians has also risen, there are only about a tenth as many newcomers, and most public expressions of frustration and controversy involving undocumented workers have been directed against Russians.

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Earlier this month, the Bali Provincial Government announced the formation of a task force consisting of police and officials from the ministries of labour, industry and trade to crack down on undocumented workers.

A spokesperson told local media that the task force would step up internet surveillance and post billboards to warn tourists about illegal work on the island. In the first week, the task force arrested six tourists, all Russian. All six – three sex workers, two motorcycle instructors and a tennis coach – were served with deportation notices.

Last month, authorities paraded a 27-year-old Russian national in front of local media wearing a black hood – a practice normally reserved for suspected drug offenders – after accusing him of working as a freelance photographer while holding an investment visa had .

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Bali authorities have cracked down on undocumented workers (File: Willy Kurniawan/Reuters)

“I hope that the authorities will no longer turn a blind eye to foreigners who abuse our hospitality,” Zee Putro, co-owner of Outdoor Activities, a mountaineering tour company, told Al Jazeera.

Putro claimed that not only his company, but the entire industry is threatened by the influx of Russians.

“First they contact me to ‘collaborate’, which means they want to introduce new guests for commission. They want us to work for them in the field,” he said.

“But they are also in the field. The last time I hiked to the top of Agung Volcano, I saw many Russians guiding other Russians without local guides, even though local guides are required by law. The Russians seem to know everything about the mountain. I think they climbed the mountain before with local guides and remembered all the routes, safety issues, wind factors, timing and hazards. It is sad because many local guides are out of work.”

Juda Purba, a surf instructor in Bali, echoed such sentiments.

“It is common for foreigners to work on the beach without a permit. When we ask them if they are working, they claim they are with a friend, so the surf lesson is free. But we know they are making money from it,” Purba told Al Jazeera. “It’s unfair because they don’t pay taxes. The authorities should take care of that.”

Some Indonesians have taken matters into their own hands.

In February, the Moscow Chapter Bali Instagram account, operated by an anonymous Indonesian citizen, began posting screenshots of Russians and other foreigners advertising their services online.

Although Moscow Chapter Bali claims to have started the account as a “joke” and to “promote and support” such companies, the page has become a way for disgruntled local residents to accuse and shame suspected undocumented workers and tagging immigration authorities in hopes that they have been deported.

In its first month, the account received more than 100 reports from suspected illegal workers, many of them Russian, and amassed more than 36,000 followers before being suspended for allegedly violating community standards. In some cases, the Moscow Bali Chapter has been successful in getting companies to tone down their promotions.

After the account flagged billboards advertising a young Russian woman’s coaching business on social media, the woman, who has not been identified, changed the status of her Instagram account from public to private and stopped advertising her business online .

The Instagram account of the Moscow Chapter Bali has become a site for naming and shaming suspected undocumented workers (Instagram)

Moscow Chapter Bali, which declined to reveal their identities citing online threats, has denied complaints from Russians in Bali that the account is racist or xenophobic.

“If you look closely at our account, we also promote the businesses of Ukrainians, British and Australians,” they told Al Jazeera. “But unfortunately most of them are Russian, and some of them have become aggressive and are sending us messages that if there are no Russians, Bali (economically) will not survive in the post-pandemic (era).”

The Moscow Bali Chapter also accused the Russians of being the only foreigners “openly promoting themselves”.

“They know what they’re doing is illegal and they’re making noise because they don’t respect us.”

Despite the marked increase in enforcement, Bali’s immigration authorities have expressed disapproval of citizens’ efforts to track down illegal workers.

“Netizens keep tagging us in their posts and saying we should deport A and B, but we can’t just deport people for no apparent reason,” Bali’s immigration chief Barron Ichsan told Al Jazeera. “We have to investigate on a case-by-case basis.”

Ichsan said there are already lawful avenues for citizens to report undocumented workers, including a 24-hour call center.

“We have a call center that is active 24 hours a day. When you make a report, you must be responsible and provide your personal information and evidence,” he said. “Give us a clear report and we will track them down. Trust us.”

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