Indonesian island loses patience with Russians and Ukrainians fleeing war


With its balmy beaches, laid-back lifestyle and vacation vibe, the tropical paradise of Bali has plenty to offer any world-weary traveler, let alone those fleeing a war zone.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Indonesia’s most famous resort island has once again become a magnet for thousands of Russians and Ukrainians seeking to escape the horrors of war.

Some 58,000 Russians visited this Southeast Asian idyll in 2022 after it reopened post-Covid, and another 22,500 arrived in January 2023 alone, according to the Indonesian government, making it the second largest group of visitors after Australians. Added to their numbers are the more than 7,000 Ukrainians who arrived in 2022, and some 2,500 in the first month of this year.

But for those fleeing violence – or conscription – there is trouble in heaven. Balinese authorities this week called for an end to Indonesia’s visa-on-arrival policy for Russian and Ukrainian citizens, citing a series of alleged incidents involving misconduct and various examples of visitors overstaying their visas and working illegally as hairdressers, unauthorized tourist guides and taxi drivers. Drivers. The move has been appalled by many Ukrainians on the island, who say most incidents involve Russians and they are unfairly treated the same way.

“Whenever we get information about a foreigner misbehaving, it’s almost always Russian,” a local Kuta city police officer told CNN, declining to be identified due to sensitivities surrounding the question.

“Foreigners come to Bali but they behave as if they are above the law. This has always been the case and it must finally stop,” he said.

Ill-mannered tourists can be a touchy subject in Bali, where foreigners of various nationalities regularly make headlines for drunken and inappropriate behavior, public nudity and disrespect for sacred sites.

But Balinese authorities seem ready to make an example of Russians and Ukrainians in a growing public debate over the perception of their conduct.

“Why these two countries? Because they are at war, they are flocking here,” Bali Governor Wayan Koster told a news conference this week.

The influx of Russians and Ukrainians to Bali comes as Ukraine has banned all men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country. Russia has no official blanket ban, but has mobilized 300,000 reservists to join the fighting, prompting many young men to flee abroad rather than be conscripted.

CNN has contacted the Russian Embassy in Indonesia and the Ukrainian Consulate in Bali. Russian Embassy officials did not immediately respond; Ukraine’s Honorary Consulate in Bali said Ukrainians in the country were mostly women there for family reunification reasons rather than tourism and they “didn’t want to break any rules and regulations”.

While Bali was a favorite of Russian tourists even before the war, its attractions have become even more appealing following Putin’s brutal invasion and ensuing mobilization.

And it’s far from the only refuge in Southeast Asia. The island of Phuket in southern Thailand, often hailed as one of the best beach destinations in the world, has seen a sudden influx of Russian arrivals, many of whom have invested in real estate to be able to enjoy vacations. long duration. “Life in Russia is very different now,” a former St. Petersburg investment banker who bought an apartment near Phuket’s Old Town district told CNN. He refused to divulge his identity for fear of reprisals from the Russian authorities.

“Nobody wants to stay and live in the middle of war,” he said. “It’s stressful to think about the possibility of going back to Russia and being punished… (so) it makes sense to invest somewhere that’s cheaper than Moscow and safer.”

In Bali, part of the attraction is Indonesia’s policy that allows nationals of more than 80 countries – including, at least for now, Russia and Ukraine – to apply for visas upon arrival. The visa is valid for 30 days but can be extended once up to a total of 60 days.

That could be plenty of time for those planning a long vacation, but those wanting a longer stay are not allowed to work. Indonesian authorities said several Russian tourists had been deported in recent months for overstaying their visas, including a 28-year-old man from Moscow who was arrested and deported after he was discovered working as a photographer.

Others who arrived hoping to find work have since returned home, risking the wrath of Moscow if they are suspected of fleeing conscription.

Among the wave of Russians to travel to Bali was Sergei Ovseikin, a street artist who created an anti-war mural in the middle of a rice paddy – a ‘mural’ that reflected his position on military conscription and war .

“Like many others forced to leave our homeland, I came to Bali as a tourist,” Ovseikin said.

“Russia remains in a difficult political situation. I am against wars, no matter where they take place,” he said.

“A lot of people who didn’t agree with the war flew to Bali – Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and others,” he added. “We all get along well with each other…and understand that ordinary people didn’t start this war.”

News of the possible change in visa rules has shaken some of the island’s Ukrainians, many of whom left their homeland when the war broke out and have been living on savings ever since, leaving and returning every 60 days to avoid to flout the rules.

“Bali is a good place,” said a Ukrainian named Dmytro. “It’s beautiful, the weather is good and it’s a safe place for Ukrainians – there may be large groups of Russians, but there are no Russian soldiers.”

Ukrainians on the island were a close-knit community that largely kept away from the Russians and had been surprised by the possible move, he added.

“Ukrainians respect Balinese law and culture. We do a lot for our local communities and pose no risk to the people of Bali,” Dmytro said. “Many in Ukraine have questions about Bali and would like to come too.”

“It’s very sad that Ukrainians are put in the same (category) as Russians. Russians are the second largest group of tourists in Bali and if you read the news you will see how often Russians break local laws and disrespect Balinese culture and traditions,” he added.

“So why do Ukrainians have to suffer when we are not the ones causing problems in Bali?

Ukrainian people at the opening of the consulate in Denpasar, Bali.

Ukraine’s Honorary Consulate in Bali said in a statement to CNN that there were approximately 8,500 Ukrainian citizens on the island as of February 2023, holding various temporary and permanent visa permits.

“Ukrainians are not coming to Bali on vacation right now because our country is overrun. Ukrainians who are coming to Bali now are for family reunification (reasons) and are mostly women,” spokesman Nyoman said. Astama.

“We reiterate that Ukrainians in Bali do not want to break rules and regulations,” Astama added. “It is imperative to enforce the law and implement the consequences of any violation of the law, as the people of Bali are now expressing.”

Yet, for now at least, anyone from either country still hoping to obtain a visa on arrival can take comfort in the fact that the central government has yet to decide whether or not to grant the request of the Balinese authorities.

“We will discuss it in detail with other stakeholders,” Indonesian Tourism Minister Sandiaga Uno told local media on Monday.


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