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Afghani asylum seekers and refugees in the republic of indonesia

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Below are a series of quotations from interviews with asylum seekers:

Asylum seekers described aspects of “Operation Sting.” “Holes were drilled in the boat and stuffed with a piece of wood. (In Dari this is called “fana” - translation ‘bung’). As the pressure of the load on the boat increased, this wooden plug popped out and the ship took on water”.

“We reached a remote island off Indonesia. As we were unloading our things, local people with red mouths came to help us unload. They took all our belongings. We walked for some hours along a narrow path. Suddenly we met with an Australian man. We were exhausted, tired and hungry. He give us the IOM telephone number. The next day we saw our Captain and his crew in the office of…”

“Our boat was taking water and the Australian authority pushed us back to the Indonesian waters. During the journey the pump provided by the Australians was pumping water out from the inside. Then they took the pump away and showed us which direction to go. As the boat sank our feet could touch the ground. If this had happened few meters further away, we would have been dead.”

“Back from the unsuccessful journey a young man due to his hunger ate the wild nut and died few hours later.”

“A young man in Jakarta was accused by a UNHCR Protection Officer a of having a sexual relationship with his sister. He committed suicide.”

“A young man who had nothing to live on, became a male prostitute and suffered a sudden death.”

A returnee from Indonesia to Afghanistan, who was unable to survive in the country and left for Quetta died in last Ashura’s terrorist attacks.




Friends in Jakarta provided invaluable guidance and contacts. They said “Tebet the hippy suburb of the sixties in south central Jakarta where the refugees are accommodated is not a good place to go. It is a “no go zone”.

1. This truth of this statement was confirmed by a young mother of two children, her brother and mother-in-law. She said: “Many times in the middle of the night people were chasing each other with an axe, to kill. The horror of each night has additionally traumatised us. We are Shia from Herat and our facial features are different from Indonesians, and they think we are Arab and we have a lot of money....”

Supposedly under the protection of IOM and UNHCR, the living circumstances of young women and children without husbands, fathers or other male relatives in the middle of a drug and crime zone, is unacceptable.

2 Another mother of two young teenage boys has been living with a family from Herat in a block of units divided by a three metre corridor, not far from the exclusive high rise apartments of Jakarta but close to the canals, the known sources of dengue fever and malaria. Both families are recognized by UNHCR as refugees. The husbands and fathers of the children are refugees on Temporary Protection Visas in Australia, denied the right to sponsor them.

There was much crying and complaining about denied access to education, poor food and water, and fear of drugs and the lack of personal safety as destitute people in a foreign city. This is the tragedy of Australia’s denial of family reunion. It would be humane to grant dependant family members “derivative protection,”, so the family could be together again. I fear for them in their vulnerability and hopelessness.


Cipayung lies about 80km outside Jakarta, close to a green tropical highland with a flowing river. The human tragedy is the same. There I spoke with 14 refugee families assessed by UNHCR whose husbands/fathers are in Australia and whose attempts to reach the Australian mainland failed. They have now waited for more than two years, and are keen to be reunited as a family. Some risked death at sea four or more times. Children know their father only through rare phone calls and the little money he can send them. They are not smiling or adjusting to the society around them.

All attempts at learning English and using computers have not been rewarded by being reunited with daddy. Children conclude that Daddy’s promises have been “broken and broken,” he is fading in their lives, becoming a person of no consequence to them, a faded memory. The mothers worry all day long. Their motivation to calm their children is diminishing rapidly.

I sat with them while the IOM officer watched. It was an encounter with tearful eyes, broken voices. To support myself through this gut wrenching interview I held the children tight, a response to their emotional needs and in solidarity with my brothers, their absent fathers. What words can describe the disturbing regime of temporary visas that decides not to reunite separated family members? That builds walls beyond the ocean between loved ones. Is this valuing family?

The house with its courtyard is adequate. They have built a tandoor oven in the corner to bake bread in the traditional manner. The soccer field is small and muddy, and there are no goal posts. Some times chickens join the game too. Iraqis and Afghanis are living in the same complex and each family has one room. The rooms are crowded. In one corner is the kitchen. Not far away is the toilet and with running water for washing.

As the ladies talk, the pain of separation from husbands and loved ones is visible in their movements and how they hold their bodies. Their chadors are resettled again and again as they speak of their desire to be united with the father of their children, even if it was on a visa for one week. They have missed them every day, and for so long.

I have recorded the facts and their statements and I have promised to make representations to the Minister for Immigration and to ask for her compassionate intervention to allow the family to be together again, in Australia.


1. I traveled to Surabaya by plane and on to Situbondo, East Java by taxi. A four hour journey and a very dangerous one. I must compliment the accuracy of eyesight and the courage of Indonesian drivers. The scenery all along was my reminder of the journey of all those asylum seekers who didn’t make it. I went to Situbondo to visit Nasima with her three daughters and a son, whose story and whereabouts I already knew from contact with their husband and father in Sydney.

When I called her she was ready to see me immediately. I had asked her to give me time for only that night. In the morning she and her delightful darling daughter were at the door of the hotel. I enjoyed their company for breakfast. Then we went to her place, where the girls were getting lunch ready.

The signs of being inactive, eating more and lower quality food items were present. The hostel is in a nice place near the beach front, but only has one room for four persons. The front veranda lies in the shadow of a poinciana tree, a few strands of wire for drying the washing provided additional color. A bathroom plus toilet, with one corner to be used as kitchen, is the sum total of accommodation for five people.

Ideal for a restful holiday for someone like me, I thought, but not for a young Afghan woman without her husband, with no privacy from neighbors, and burdened by fear and traumatized by the loss of two of her children. Pushed back from Australian waters twice, and witnessing the death of an infant.

Until six months ago she believed that her husband had been killed by the Taliban on the way home to Jaghoory, most probably in infamous area of Sange-pusht. Her elderly father, who wanted to be with his daughter and grand children, left them to return home after one failed nightmare sea journey. Taking his old bones back to the old country was better than dying in an alien country, he decided.

The UNHCR had rejected the application of this family, and their appeal against refusal was unsuccessful. Meanwhile the husband was discovered to be living in Sydney and legal representations were made which convinced UNHCR to reassess the case. Her refugee status has recently been acknowledged by UNHCR. The youngest daughter told me that she barely remembers her father.

2. In the same compound is an elderly lady of Tajik ethnicity, who is waiting to be reunited with her two sons in Australia. She tried her luck twice and seems to be running out of fighting energy. Her existence is that of incarceration in a beach hotel in Situbondo for an unknown, indeterminate number of days. A lonesome life. Waiting like those not yet sentenced, waiting to be judged and convicted. Why this love of punishment and conviction? She peeled me an apple so beautifully and reminded me of my petit grandma. She understands that a $60,000 sponsor guarantee is needed for her entry to Australia. She is not sure of the details of her sponsorship or when she may join her sons – the latest information that she is awaiting reinterview by UNHCR.

3 Seven young refugee men who had made a number of attempts at the sea journey to Australia made specific complaints about UNHCR officers –who have also been named by others) about the inadequacies of interpreter services for their interviews.

The food items given to them were basic and similar to those provided in the hostel. No cash support was provided, nor did they have the right to work. For clothing they were given only Rupiah 100,000 per year - enough to buy a T-shirt. The cost of transport, telephone costs, any English classes or the basic computer and literacy training has to be paid from the re sale of food items to the locals.

This support program is handled by IOM and financed by Australia. What is in the agreement? What is the individual entitlement? Is Australia monitoring the program? Is there corruption in the administration of the program, short changing powerless asylum seekers?



Arya Building, 14th Floor Jl. Kebon Sirih Kav. 75 
Jakarta 10340 Telephone: 62213912888 
Date: 15 January 2004 
To the attention of the Afghans in Mataram, 

Dear Afghan people in Mataram

  I would like to refer to the two points raised yesterday by you with Mr. Shinji Kubo, Protection Officer, during his visit to Mataram, as follows. 

  1. You asked for assurances that UNHCR/Jakarta will apply the same procedures to the review of your cases, as the ones being applied to the Nauru cases. 

  2. You would like to hire a lawyer and have him/her fully involved in terms of presenting/defending your cases. 

I would like to assure you that UNHCR as an organization seeks to apply the same approach and standards when dealing with the same group of persons regardless of their location or the location of a particular Office. As such, we are seeking to harmonize the review process as much as possible with our office in Canberra. However there are two important differences to be taken into account: (a) Australia is a signatory to the 1951 Convention, whereas Indonesia is not; and (b) The cases on Nauru are in detention, whereas you and other Afghans elsewhere in Indonesia enjoy freedom of movement. These are important differences between the two situations and are taken into account as we review whether a person is in need of international protection and under what conditions. 

As to the second point, I would like to inform you that UNHCR allows legal representation. Normally an asylum seeker may be accompanied by a lawyer during the interview, who may have the opportunity to make a brief submission at the end of interview. For the process to work smoothly, we expect that the lawyer will be knowledgeable about refugee law, that he/she will not interrupt the applicant during his/her statements, and that he/she will not be obstructive during the interview. They will be allowed to have access to the information provided by you and to submit any supporting information on your behalf. We would require that any one of you who decides to avail himself/herself of the services of a lawyer, to provide written consent for our own records. 

As we have stated before, we anticipate that the review will be completed by 1 March 2004 subject to our being able to obtain any necessary answers to questions from our Office in Kabul. In order not to raise any undue expectations, I would like to reiterate that there is no guarantee that the review process will grant refugee status to all. The results of the review may lead to both positive and negative decisions, which will be final, or to the need to conduct a further interview. 

Best regards 

Robert Ashe Regional Representative 

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