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Afghani asylum seekers and refugees in the republic of indonesia

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  • Review the operations of the UNHCR Jakarta office, including investigation of complaints and allegations of corruption, staff and interpreter bias and incompetence, unjust assessment procedures, denial of natural justice and neglect of asylum seekers and refugees in UNHCR’s care.

  • Review and monitor qualifications and performance of interpreters and translators, especially with regard to knowledge of essential ethnic languages and dialects, so as to protect the rights of asylum seekers and the integrity of UNHCR’s own procedures.

  • Report publicly on negotiations that have been completed or are in progress regarding the resettlement of refugees with acknowledged links to family members already in Australia who have refugee status.

  • Publicly report on the number of refugees granted resettlement places in Australia under Australia’s refugee and humanitarian programme since 1999.


  • End all contracts with the Australian Government, for the care of asylum seekers in Indonesia (and Nauru) as these compromise IOM’s reputation and integrity.

  • Protect IOM’s integrity by avoiding involvement in voluntary and involuntary repatriation of asylum seekers, thus forcing governments to accept direct responsibility for their actions.

  • Publicly report on the contractual arrangements made by the Australian Government, including the standards of service specified and IOM’s ability to meet these standards in Indonesia within current resource contracts.

General Comments

UNHCR needs to consider revising its approach and methods, to bring them into line with contemporary expectations and technology. Doing this would, in my opinion, have a major positive effect on its reputation and credibility.

UN organisations should be demonstrating themselves as independent, in fact and in appearance. Even if they receive large amounts of funding from a single government. Especially if the funds are in conjunction with a specific project.

  • UNHCR, the Indonesian Immigration Department and IOM need to take a different, more welcoming approach, to asylum seekers and institute trust-building measures.

  • The UNHCR needs to provide legal information sessions for asylum seekers, regarding Human Rights and the legal framework and responsibility of their organisation under the UN Conventions, International law and the domestic law of the host country.

  • The above organisations have to provide counseling and support services for traumatised people, especially children and young adults.

  • Interviews should take place in a non-threatening environment with personal security and cultural issues fully considered.

  • Interviews should be video taped and a copy provided to the asylum seeker.

  • Freedom of information should be standard practice (i.e. provision of a copy of all relevant documents to asylum seekers).

  • For the final status determination a public tribunal, including asylum seeker legal representatives, should be established.

  • All accusation of war crimes or incorrect statements must be dealt within An independent public tribune, as noted above.

  • No family should be involuntarily separated, except via divorce procedures.

  • Provision of services must meet international standards, especially with regard to families with school age children.

  • Adequate education, training and essential social and sporting activities should be provided while under asylum seekers assessment.

  • Repatriation should only voluntary and with guarantees of follow-up monitoring and support.

  • Translators and interpreters used, should have an accreditation from a college or a university equivalent to a semester of full-time study and be accredited in the language of the asylum seeker.




I visited Lombok twice, the second time to observe the UNHCR review interviews on 8th March 2004. My first trip to Lombok (19 Feb) was to meet with the asylum seekers who had contacted me by phone in Brisbane and who had organized and participated in the January 8-16th hunger strike. The end of the strike was brought about by UNHCR’s commitment to a review of all cases. It was made clear by UNHCR that being on hunger strike would prevent the review of every hunger striker’s case.

I heard their story of two years of neglect and despair and noted their complaints of unjust initial refugee assessments, biased attitudes and inadequate interpreter services. They have had no access to legal representation. As well, there were complaints about the punitive actions of local authorities, such as putting people into jail with criminals, on the grounds that they should not try to make an attempt to reach Australia. It was intended as punishment and deterrence, so as to teach others a lesson. It mirrored the ’deter and punish’ culture of Australian border detention camps/prisons.

I returned to Mataram, Lombok on 7th March in my capacity as the appointed representative for 30 asylum seekers. The understanding reached with UNHCR was that I would be permitted to participate in the interviews. (See Jakarta meeting, above). Two asylum seekers had been absent from a meeting (on 27th February 2004) and only 30, therefore, provided a signed authority, which was faxed to UNHCR in Jakarta.(Attachment 5). In a vote 18 to 14, the asylum seekers opted for review interviews to be held in the first week of March rather than a month later, which was my preferred option.

Interview preparation

I stayed in Mataram (19-21 Feb)and visited them at their hostel Wisma Nusantaria-JLR Soeprapto No 28 Mataram for three consecutive days and was available for almost 18 hours per day. Sessions were held for the whole community, with groups and with individuals. They utilized my services very intensively and effectively. Listening to people tell their stories was a useful preparation for them. Given the circumstances of the last two years, it was important to encourage them to be optimistic and hopeful and not be discouraged or intimidated by what had happened to them in earlier UNHCR interviews. I urged them to have faith in themselves and in their true stories and was rewarded with confidentialities and trust.

For those who were angry and felt aggrieved, it was useful to encourage them to separate their complaints about previous processes and problems with interpreting from their statement of claims for refugee status. Their focus had to be on their claims. The complaints I would take up separately. Again they would be interviewed without legal representation and with only a silent community representative present. I was assured by them that this was better than no independent observer and witness.

The principles of the Geneva Convention were explained in detail – something new for most if not all of them - with discussions of how their personal claims of persecution might best be presented to the Protection Officers. A major contribution to their preparation was information about Afghanistan, and what had happened since their forced departure. Country information was discussed, and educated and skilled people among them made good use of internet sources and the links provided by Australian friends. It was indisputably the internet and skills of a few which enabled them to break out of their isolation and (re)connect with friends and supporters worldwide.


The UNHCR Team from their Malaysian Office were Ms. Selvi (with Ms. Darwis local interpreter) and Mr. Reuben (with Mr. Mahmoud local interpreter). Both Protection Officers were young and professional in their approach. Their introduction was standard, as was their explanation of interview procedures.

A total of 32 people were interviewed and I participated in 27 interviews and had a short preparatory session with those to be interviewed the next day. One man very politely asked me not to attend his interview. My flight departure time caused me to miss the interview with another man – a case about which I had concerns. With two teams in action, I moved between them and spent about 65% of my time observing the more problematic interviews with Ms Selvi.

The boundary between an ‘interview’ and ‘interrogation’ was not clear. Missing from the process was a friendly approach and the use of ‘ice breaking’ techniques for setting a comfortable, trusting atmosphere. Audio recording of the interviews or taking photos was not allowed.

The interviews took place in the local District Police Office (Polda Polisi) after the asylum seeker was searched in the presence of a security guard. The guard was busy sending regular SMS and knew few words of Persian and even Hazaraghi. It was hot, and there was no air-conditioning or even a fan on the first day. Cold drinking water on the first day was a luxury; but water was provided by the host Police Office. Noise from neighboring rooms bordered on disturbance and included whistling. By the second and/or third day no drinking water was provided. A European gentleman, self assured and with an aura of authority who did not introduce himself, then provided the cooler and water. I guessed he was involved with intelligence/security as all others deferred to him and he was accompanied by security people.

Interview process

The applicant was asked up front to state their satisfaction with the interpreter. After only a few sentences from the interpreter, this was hard to judge and a number said they would give their judgment at the end of the session. There was no response to this.

There is no disputing that asylum seekers were given enough time to say if they had something to say. But a traumatized person was very much in need of counseling before the interview. Unfortunately, the Protection Officer does not have counseling duties.

I observed a tension between decision makers wanting to get to the rational facts of the case, following a set format, and the asylum seekers wanting them to listen to their story. For the interviewer, the focus is on protection claims and for the asylum seeker their refugee case is the story of their life. Every part is related to people, places, political groupings (Afghani style) and above all, to the complex ethno-linguistic, religious and regional characteristics and issues of Kouchi – Pashtun nomads- land and water and direct or indirect connection with foreign forces Supr powers and neighbouring countries.

The culture of story telling is part of Afghani life. A story has a beginning, middle and an end, and the culture of story telling does not permit interruption. A Protection Officer pursuing facts does interrupt and their interpersonal skills are constrained by the need to establish facts contributing to decision making. The expectations of the asylum seeker are dashed, and there is a clear clash of expectations and cultures.

Asylum seekers commented to me that the manner of this interview was different from their initial interview for protection, where the approach was far more pressured in time, militaristic and hard line, and lacked understanding and compassion. They complained that they had not been listened to. In the review interview, checking personal identity, date of birth and place of residence presented the usual complications associated with uneducated people and the vagaries of Afghan culture about such facts so important in European cultures. People genuinely do not have exact answers, and it was not clear that the interviewer was fully sensitive and accepting of this. The common, incorrect assumption is that a refugee claimant would have the level of knowledge of an educated person, regarding Afghanistan geography, politics and events, confused and humbled the uneducated, especially those from isolated mountain villages. This is unfair and inappropriate. Subsequent answers become even more vague under pressure.

Demands to “Answer the questions!”, “Be precise!”, “Don’t repeat, otherwise we will be here for the whole day…” were discouraging, especially as the case officer seemed not to be aware of problems with translation. The approach often was adversarial and negatively pitched, seeking to find deception and inconsistency and looking for complications. And absolute reliance was placed on the interpreter, when in fact there are serious concerns about accuracy, cultural sensitivity, bias and gratuitous advice. (See Complaints see Attachment 2)

Each mistaken approach or misunderstanding of all three parties to the interview - UN officer, asylum seeker and interpreter - tended to have a ‘multiplier effect’ and often led to long delay and disappointments, even before decisions were announced.




omments, complaints and allegations from asylum seekers and refugees are reproduced in a close to a verbatim manner as possible.

  • Why is UNHCR not listening to us, answering our letters and telephone calls?

  • Why does UNHCR not give us assistance with appeals and independent review of our initial rejection, which was not a fair process?

  • Why does UNHCR not provide us with interpreters who understand our language and dialects?

  • Why does UNHCR not provide us with the reasons for the rejection of our claims and the reasons why they reject our appeal against their rejection? We had no document from them to support the refusal decision for our individual case in the first interview.

  • Why does UNHCR accept the uninformed and biased advice of Pashtun and Tajik employees in relation to Hazara asylum claimants?

  • Why does UNHCR not assess equally the claims of nationality by different ethnic groups from Afghanistan? Why do they think we are not Afghanistani?

  • Why do UNHCR and IOM not have a confidential system to receive and investigate complaints?

  • Why does UNHCR not ensure natural justice when canceling refugee status of about five cases – one which appears to be a case of mistaken identity

  • Why does UNHCR not listen to and report on the crimes committed against us?

  • Why does UNHCR split a family – accepting the female members only?

  • Can UNHCR tell us what happened to our countrymen who were ‘persuaded’ by wrong information while in their care that it was safe to return to Afghanistan? We know one brother died and where are the others?

  • Why can UNHCR not speak up more loudly that in Indonesia asylum seekers do not have effective protection? And that our arbitrary detention is inhumane. Must it go on until we die? If it was safe, would we not chose to leave this place?

  • Why does IOM not care for us better- give access to counseling, mental health, better food, more things for our children, better education and activities for adults?

  • Why does IOM not obtain psychologist reports on people reported as being mentally ill? Why do protection officers not consider the advice of family and friends that a man has all the signs of mental problems?

  • Why did UNHCR reject a family which did not attempt the boat journey to Australia and were accused of having lived in Saudi Arabia, when they had not. How did false papers to this effect appear on their file?

INTERPRETATION AND TRANSLATION: qualification and competence

The accreditation, qualifications and competency of interpreters in action has been the most criticized aspect of the interview process. Both interpreters were from Iran, resident in Indonesia, and had some experience with Dari language.

The interviews were conducted in English, which was not the first (native) language of any of the three parties involved – Protection Officer, asylum seeker or interpreter. This, naturally, increased the possibility of errors occurring.

Duration of interview from a minimum of forty minutes to a maximum of 5½ hours, inclusive of many call backs this time give the asylum seekers the needed assurance of fairness.

I identified the following spoken dialects of Dari heard during the interviews as:

  • Hazaragi,

  • Shamali (northern region of Kabul)

  • Tajiki of Qunduz,

  • Dari of Mazare Sharif with Bayati accents,

  • Kabuli (Dari of Kabul)

  • Paghmani,

  • Logari,

  • Dari with very strong Kandahar Pashtu accent,

  • Dari with strong Iranian influence due to religious connection or through traveling and living in Iran.

In relation to the Persian language, literature and education, Iranians outstrip Afghanis. Unfortunately, this advantage does not provide them with the ability to know the existing dialects and unique words of Dari not available in Iran, or not in common usage. Nor does knowledge of the existence of antique Persian words not in common use, make a person an interpreter for the Dari language. Language knowledge acquired through contact and experience may not be enough when the stakes are an asylum seekers’ life and future.

Mr Kazimi from Iran, a renowned Afghan linguist with expertise in this field (Persian/Dari) provides a listing of differences in meanings as well as pronunciations for over 300 words. So, if an average person uses 1,000 words, possibly one third difference exists between Iranian Farsi and Afghanistan Dari.

Beside the unique characteristics of Dari there is the fact of the population mix of Afghanistan and the decentralised and regionalised nature of the country, with populations contained in isolated valleys, as in Papua New Guinea. This shows itself first in dialects, and secondly in the existence of Uzbek, Turkmen, Kazak, Pushtu, Baluchi and Pashaiee words, with some old historical roots originating far away from Afghanistan and even further away from Iran.

Professional standard interpreting and translating requires accuracy in concept, facts, meaning and emotion. In interpretation, the positioning of words on the grammatical platform does not matter, as long as the meaning is not distorted. With the translation the accuracy of grammar is much more important, and expression and meaning should be accurate and parallel with original text.

The subject matter of being an asylum seeker and having claims of persecution assessed in interview is, by its very nature, highly emotional. This expressed itself during the interviews again and again. The human dignity of the asylum seeker must be respected by the interviewer and the interpreter, and consideration given to their past suffering. An important aspect is the rhythm of the conversation. Contradictory sequences and approaches are distressful to the asylum seeker, who will lose the thread of their thoughts and the logical basis of the concept.

To be informed and to have some level of expertise in the subject matter and its particular vocabulary is essential to the fair process and outcome. So is competency. In my view, the performance of one interpreter was compromised by a physical disability which resulted in a flawed translation of the asylum seekers’ stories and claims. This was a case of inability to do the job at an acceptable standard, nothing more. I observed the stress this created for the interpreter, for the Protection Officer and for the asylum seekers, through a number of interviews where even simple translation mistakes were made, and juxtaposition of hot for cold, east for west, for example, affected the integrity of the claims and claimant. I was told by asylum seekers that this had been a feature of the same interpreters’ performance throughout their employment with UNHCR.

Because of problems with the use of one word with different contemporary meanings in, for instance, Afghanistan and Iran and therefore confusion of understanding, additional effort is required to ensure that the intended meaning is understood. This additional effort required time and could also caused misunderstandings. For example, the word sharwal in Afghanistan means ‘mayor’ of a town, and was translated as ‘tax collector’ – which has major implications regarding the position of the person.

A person who knows two languages (reading, writing and speaking) is able to interpret, but when dialects, regions, ethnicity and level of education come into play, problems arise. If the person is not trained to be a translator and interpreter this is more serious, because training ensures knowledge of principles, ethics/morality and, importantly, professional techniques. Beyond this, some level of expertise in the subject matter is needed, as is impartiality while shifting from one language to another so frequently. Also important is to be able to shift the grammatical platform as the language changes. Otherwise the goulash will be not palatable.

With the Taleban in retreat from the capital, Kabul, the naive assumption was made that Afghanistan was safe for the return of all who had fled the Taleban and that asylum seekers in Indonesia could go home. Many individuals with Afghani background were employed by UNHCR and IOM (as well as the Australian Department of Immigration Multiculturalism and Indigenous Affairs - DIMIA) to work towards a so called ‘durable solution’. Many had Tajik and Pashtun ethnicity, and were members of the Islamic Sunni religious sect, whereas the absolute majority of asylum seekers left on Lombok (and Nauru) were Hazara and of the Islamic Shia religious sect. All the asylum seekers and refugees have bad memories, many with horrendous personal experiences, of the atrocities committed by Shoray-e-Nezar and the Taleban.

The Tajik and Pashtun employees assisted with the personal identification of claimants and the certification of the places where they had lived. They are alleged to have been judgmental and biased against those who opposed the Mujahadeen. Their knowledge of areas such as Lashkargah in Helamand Province and many areas of Central Afghanistan (Hazarestan) was faulty and totally inadequate, and the mistakes made were likely to have undermined the asylum seeker’s credibility as truthful people to the Protection Officer

These employees harassed and advised asylum seekers that if they did not have money (for bribes) with them, better that they go back straight away. A UNHCR official arranged for another person to help asylum seekers prepare their case for UNHCR ( they had no access to legal advice). Payment was cash, gold and/or wrist watches. There are accusations also of a sexual nature made by the asylum seekers against two UNHCR officials .

An Iranian asylum seeker protested against the perceived preferential treatment given to homosexuals and the neglect of other cases, by sewing his lips together. Accusations with sexual implications were made by a very stressed father whose health is precarious, following dramatic weight loss since his wife and three beautiful daughters were separated from him following incidents of domestic violence. The family of two adults and five children were living in two small rooms, and an elderly American journalist intervened in the family dysfunction. The father does not know the current whereabouts of the four women. Have they been sold into prostitution in Jakarta? He is now threatened with the removal of his two sons aged nine and eleven. What is UNHCR doing? How is it that half of the family (mother and daughters) have been recognised as refugees, while the father and two sons have not been recognised as refugees?


Accusing Hazara asylum seekers that they are not from Afghanistan is an easy and long standing tactic of discrimination. No such accusations or negative judgments are made about Pushtuns living on both sides of the Durand line, or about Tajiks who spend many years in Tajikestan or about people from Herat who frequently travel to Iran. A good example of this ethnic discrimination on Afghanistan’s borders is that Shaowray-e-Nezar (a political and military alliance) has nothing against Pushtuns and Beluchs who travel back and forth to Beluchestan or Pakistan on a daily basis, but the Hazaras of Quetta are always stopped as foreigners. The same discrimination appears in the processing of Hazara asylum seekers in Indonesia and Australia.

The attempt to link language now spoken with former place of residence - and therefore nationality - has lead Australia to spend millions of dollars on language testing of Hazara people who give Afghanistan as their home country. Given the history of more than a century of persecution, the resultant dispossession of land and property and a transient life for many ethnic Hazara, survivors acquire the words and accents of those around them wherever they are. Teachers in Australia have told me that rapid language acquisition appears to be a notable gift among Hazara survivors of persecution. Hence, a language test cannot be an exact tool to define residence and thereby nationality; nor can the judgment of Tajik and Pashtun employees be relied upon by a UNHCR Protection Officers to determine nationality. Nor should it divert attention away from the core issue of persecution associated with ethnic, religious, language and cultural identity. The tragedy of Ali Bakhtiary (in Baxter Detention Centre) and his family (living in the Adelaide community) is a reminder of the lengths to which the Australian Government is willing to go to exclude asylum seekers.

Independent review of cancellation of refugee status

Carrying over traditional or recent animosities of Afghanistan is not appropriate when assessing refugee status. What are the legal safeguards in the process used by UNHCR which led them to cancel the refugee status it gave to General Ahmadi, and then accuse him of war crimes? Who is investigating his claims that this is a case of mistaken identity? Without resources and the help of an advocate, how can he obtain justice?

General Ahmadi told me was given his title of General when he was working on

logistics of Hezbe Wahdat in Mazare Sharif at the time first invasion of Taleban in that city. He never fought in a battle. He studied law, worked in west of Kabul in public projects and he is a poet and writer. There was a warlord with the same name, about 15 years older and now dead.

He has produced dozens of documents in support of his innocence, but nobody is ready to look at them. He lost his financial support and is living in poverty, but fighting on to clear his name and reputation. This accusation was acted on by UNHCR, reportedly without giving Ahmadi legal recourse.

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