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Afghani asylum seekers and refugees in the republic of indonesia

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First Report
Official Representative of Asylum Seekers in Lombok, Indonesia

April 2004

Hassan Ghulam traveled independently to Indonesia in February and again in March 2004 in response to direct invitations from Afghan asylum seekers stranded for more than two years after smugglers’ boats were forcibly returned to Indonesian waters by the Australian navy. The asylum seekers had landed on Ashmore Reef, Australia in October 2001. UNHCR Jakarta Office assessed and rejected their claims for protection and rejected them again in the internal appeal process. IOM, funded by Australia, was contracted to provide basic accommodation, food and health services to asylum seekers living in the community, without work rights. Their current hopelessness and destitution is a human tragedy.

Hassan Ghulam is the President of the Hazara Ethnic Society in Australia, Inc based in Brisbane. An Australian citizen, he became involved in a voluntary capacity with refugees on temporary visas from the time of their release into the community in 1999. An independent spokesman, free to speak out, he is frequently interviewed by national and international media on asylum seeker and refugee policy and how policy and practices affect people. He is very active in human rights and social justice networks in Brisbane and elsewhere, resources permitting ; mobile 0409612554; WillowVale, Queensland













My heartfelt thanks go to all the friends around Australia who so generously helped finance my travel costs and shared their fine and sensitive feelings via cards and condolences. I am grateful to have been with my family in Germany to bury my Mum and to celebrate her remarkable life. She will remain an inspiration.

My compliments and thanks to the Chief Officer of Immigration in Lombok. Thanks to IOM officers in Jakarta, Lombok and Situbondo for efforts to protect me.

My deepest gratitude to all asylum seekers who shared their lives’ important stories with me. A million thanks for the warm welcome and magnificent hospitality that I enjoyed. My apologies to the women and children, for whom I had not nearly enough time.

Memorable and caring friends : Sean, Melody and Robert. Dear friend, sister Freddie Steen, whose inputs from the beginning to the end has been and are the absolute highlights. Thank you for editing my Dari-Deutsch-English into “report English”.



Indonesia is the transit country for asylum seekers using so called ‘people smugglers’ to reach Australia. It is also the place where they had to prepare themselves for a death defying, dangerous journey. But this country of thousands of island is not a signatory to the Geneva Convention of 1951, leaving the legal principles of international law to the mercies of Indonesian national and domestic immigration law.

At the time of a downturn in their economy, when the currency was losing its value, and political instability accompanied unemployment and historical changes in society, Indonesia saw an unprecedented influx of thousands of asylum seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iran. This undoubtedly added further to unease in Indonesian society.

The refugees had between $US 2,000-10,000 each – often borrowed - to pay for their journey. This inflow of cash made up in part for the downturn in local tourist trade, and created income and work for underused fishing boats and ferries, the cheapest form of transport. No wonder then, that criminal people smugglers could competitively purchase the services of poor local fishermen to navigate their often unseaworthy boats towards Australia.

A political factor was also at play. There was some level of unhappiness with Australian government policies regarding East Timor which made Indonesian authorities reluctant to control the so-called illegal migration. Well organized international smuggling rings to south-east Asia had well established connections at many levels of Indonesian society.

For Indonesian authorities to be generous with a stamp on a so-called ‘travel document’ was simple. “Why not?” was the attitude. These suffering refugees have been mistreated by sanctions and USA-manipulated wars. If they were able to reach Australia there was no harm to Indonesia. So a little money in the pocket, and turning a blind eye, was not difficult.


As the merciless march of the Taleban continued across Afghanistan, financially supported by certain Arab states, the ground for Hazara and Shia populations was burning. The only way to survive was to flee and take refuge. Moving from one place to another internally, as well as leaving Afghanistan. This created a market environment for people smugglers.

Displacement was not new. It goes back to the beginning of the defeat of Hazara people by King Abdul Rahman Khan who created the first wave of refugees, and pushed them into three directions - Quetta Beluchestan in the south, Mashhad in Iran in the west and Uzbekestan in the North. The relocation for Hazara from all corners into a geographic area where their ethnicity, language and religion would not be questioned, seemed to be the appropriate solution.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran they had no place, not even those who had sacrificed time, money and risked their lives during Iran-Iraq war. In Pakistan, the Fatwas of Sepah-e- Sahabah and Lashkar-e-Tayyebah (which covered thirty-six organizations) encouraged persecution and the Madrasa (schools) similar to those producing the Taleban, continued on their mission which included acts of terror against Hazara and Shia. In Arabic countries, even with valid visas, they had no legitimacy - no right to enjoy the income received from work, to have a business under their own name, or to live as equal human beings. Escaping from religious war and Jihad and running away from the shame of defeat to far flung hiding places - like Australia - seemed the answer, not withstanding that they had to leave every thing behind.

At the peak of antagonism between world power USA and the Taleban over the delivering up Osama Bin Laden, then hiding in Afghanistan, two parallel events significantly affected the mostly Muslim asylum seekers in transit in Indonesia: the aftermath of September the 11th attack on the USA and Australia’s naval interception program, including the refusal to let MV Tampa disembark 433 asylum seekers rescued at sea.


Onshore, in Australia, there was some public knowledge of immigration detention, though diminished by distance and isolation, and by very limited media access. Freedom of the press was also compromised. Even by late 2003 what happened off-shore, on Christmas and Manus Islands and on Nauru, was largely unknown: out of sight, out of mind. Nauru, under Australian duress, was a no-go zone, for journalists, lawyers, human rights advocates. Even less was known about asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia, who had failed in the last part of their refugee journey and were returned from Ashmore Reef to Indonesian waters by force and against their will. Most Australians remain unaware of this and other breaches of Australia’s international obligations.

It took the gruesome 30 day hunger strike by 45 men on Nauru, isolated and abandoned there for more than two years, to remind Australia and the world last Christmas of the continuing violation of the human rights of 284 men women and children held there in indefinite Australian detention. The protest was reported by grassroots refugee advocates, based on their telephone and email communications with protesters and, thankfully, picked up by the media.

News of the hunger strike on Nauru reached the asylum seekers stranded in Indonesia. Surviving in the local community, however they had access to the Internet, radio and television and were aware of the protest occurring on Nauru. In desperation they decided to protest also and commenced a hunger strike on 8th January 2004 to draw attention to their tragic situation. Please read their own statements on Lombok Listener))

What happened to asylum seekers repelled by the Australian navy at the direction of the Prime Minister and returned to Indonesia?

Allegations and accusations of mistreatment, corruption, denial of human rights and systematic neglect of asylum seekers were recorded in the 2002 Human Rights Watch report on Australia. I heard the same and more. (See Attachment 2). The following questions arise:

Were United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials in Indonesia in league with people smugglers and encouraged and bribed to slow down the processing of asylum applications to build a rich ‘pipeline’ of customers for the journey (or repeat journey) to Australia? Asylum seekers complain of 3, 4 even 5 failed attempts in leaking boats which, thankfully, turned back to shore and did not founder at sea. They grieve for the estimated 600-1,000 people lost at sea between Indonesia and Australia.

What official and unofficial payments did Australian officials make to UNHCR or UNHCR officials personally in Jakarta? Why were the survivors of the SIEVX dispatched with such unseemly haste? There are accusations that Australia paid a lot of money to an UNHCR officer in Jakarta - that “ x( an official) said while this UNHCR official has authority, no refugees will be resettled in Australia…”

The hastily devised ‘Pacific Solution’ in September 2001 was followed by arrangements and Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) which out sourced to UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the delivery of services to asylum seekers who are Australia’s responsibility in Indonesia, on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea. These arrangements seriously distorted the traditional roles of UNHCR and IOM and raise questions of conflict of interest and serious departures from their mandate and mission. Details of these arrangements, and their cost to the Australian taxpayer, have been suppressed or disguised.

Were there ‘encouragements’ offered to UNHCR officials by the Australian Government for them to both refuse granting refugee status and turn the asylum seekers around, and to actively promote “voluntary repatriation”? Were the delays in processing and review designed to dis-able and harass asylum seekers, and drive them to return to the country of their persecution?

Asylum seekers claim UNHCR officials:

  • neglect their needs,

  • do not communicate with them regularly,

  • gave them no access to legal advice,

  • made errors in the processing of their initial claims,

  • do not provide independent reviews,

  • do not communicate decisions in the language of the claimant,

  • do not act on complaints of interpreter bias, and

  • do not monitor the asylum seekers’ deteriorating living conditions and health.

They complain of their life in limbo – no permission to work, no access to education for their children, no opportunity to integrate. They are adamant it is unsafe for them to go home.

Conservative governments and parties in the rest of the world have considered and adopted some of the Australian policy and practices to keep out of the “first world “peoples from the third and fourth worlds who are fleeing persecution, starvation and poverty. This has negated their commitment to the Geneva Convention of 1951 and undermined the UN in general. Understandably this attitude has done its mileage and it is declining.

The Pacific Solution’s ‘failed asylum seekers’ on Lombok

After more than two years surviving in Indonesia, asylum seekers whose claims had been rejected by UNHCR acted to bring some kind of resolution to their miserable lives. A UNHCR review of 32 Afghani asylum cases (Attachment 1) took place in the wake of a hunger strike in the city of Mataram, Lombok, Republic of Indonesia, from 8-16th January 2004. A letter received by the asylum seekers from UNHCR dated 15th January provided a fresh start to a process of review, and ended the stalemate between the asylum seekers and UNHCR officials.

The review of all remaining 32 cases was planned for early March, with a detailed process to be determined in consultation between UNHCR Jakarta, the proposed asylum seek

ers’ lawyer/migration agent Marion Le and their appointed community representative, Hassan Ghulam. Prominent human rights advocate Marion Le, an independent migration agent based in Canberra, had been approached by UNHCR in mid January to be the authorized agent for the asylum seekers but this arrangement did not materialize. Parity with the review arrangements put in place for rejected asylum seekers on Nauru had been a demand from the protesters, i.e. proper legal process, access to information and advice . In other words, justice and their human rights.

This first report

In this report I am trying to explain what is wrong. Why it is today that asylum seekers and refugees are destitute in Indonesia, absolutely hopeless, without hope, without a life, without a future. They have lost all their money, all their assets have been lost at sea or were stolen, and they are totally dependant on the inadequate support provided by IOM under contract to the Australian Government: basic accommodation, basic food twice a day, one toy per child per year… Family members are separated, children are denied education. Adults denied their human rights and stripped of their human dignity are falling apart. They are strangers in a strange land which will not allow them to live with full rights as human beings.

These asylum seekers remain the responsibility of the Australian Government under the UN Convention (which is why we pay IOM to care for them). And the vulnerable, courageous women and children, fully adjudicated by UNHCR and found to be in need of protection, deserve derivative protection under the UN Convention. Under Australia’s recently increased refugee program, they could be resettled in Australia where their husbands and fathers were granted refugee status years ago. In the name of humanity, this situation of suffering cannot go on.


In early February 2004 I had visited the Geneva offices of UNHCR (Andrew HARPER) and IOM (Jian ZHAO and Christopher Lom). I briefed them on the critical issues affecting nearly 300 refugees on Nauru, as personally known to me, and gave details of their 30 day hunger strike last December/January. I had been intimately involved in reporting the issues and deteriorating conditions to the Australian and international media and had been in direct telephone contact with spokesmen for the refugees for most of the preceding two years. (This contact was made possible by generous donations from Australian supporters and the email and letter writing efforts of Elaine Smith and her network.) During the hunger strike we maintained regular contact by telephone and email, including with the hunger strikers themselves.

I commented that the issues in Lombok appeared to be similar to those on Nauru. Both involve people who had fled tyranny and persecution and whose lives were in limbo. Both groups were in the indirect care of Australia and had been forcibly transported or directed to their destination by Australian Government.. Both groups continue to suffer, without hope of a future. Complete despair drove both groups to protest through a hunger strike, and to ask for a humane and lasting solution. Knowledge of the claims of the Lombok refugees, their treatment by Australia, their abandonment and isolation has only recently come to the notice of advocate networks in Australia.

I expressed my personal opinion regarding the human rights violations, miscarriages of justice, and the resulting serious damage to Australia’s reputation as a supporter of human rights. I informed the officials of legal action by Julian Burnside and others, in regard to what they alleged is the illegal incarceration of asylum seekers on Nauru and children in detention, and described for them the growing mass movement of Australians opposed to the current government policy of mandatory, indefinite and non-reviewable detention. I also described the regime of temporary three or five year visas for refugees, fully adjudicated as being in contravention of the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol to which Australia is a signatory.

I expressed the view that identified breaches of human rights and international law were the clear focus of those calling for reform in Australia, and that partnerships between the Australian Government, UNHCR and IOM on Nauru and in Indonesia were perceived to compromise the latter. For instance, serious concerns are held about violations of human rights of people in the care of IOM in the ‘offshore border prison camp’ of Nauru .

I requested the officials to pass on our plea for a visit to Australia by Ruud Lubbers the Head of UNHCR, to take up the major issues human rights issues with the Australian Government and to demonstrate that UNHCR HQ stood behind the public position which had been taken by their Regional Representative in Australia. I noted that the Representative was highly regarded in his difficult and sensitive role, and for withstanding sustained criticism and opposition by the Australian Government. The effective behind the scenes work, and the negotiations with New Zealand, were greatly appreciated by refugee advocate networks in Australia..


Geneva HQ facilitated a good welcome by the IOM and UNHCR in Jakarta Indonesia. I met with Protection Officer Tony Garcia and Stephane Jaquemet, Deputy Regional Representative, and made clear the nature of my role with the Afghan asylum seekers in Indonesia. I told them I was not a lawyer or accredited migration agent. They were clearly aware that hunger strikers in both Nauru and Lombok had appointed me to represent them and their claims in discussions with UNHCR, IOM and government. Yet UNHCR’s recognition of my status as nominated representative and spokesman was only token.

In the meeting with Garcia, conditions of my participation in the UNHCR review process was determined. I was not to be allowed to record the proceedings.

I would be

  • Allowed to participate

  • Allowed to observe the conduct of interviews, without interference

  • Permitted to take notes

  • Make comments at the end, for not more than 10 minutes

During my first visit to Indonesia (21st February -1st March) I made contact with the Afghan asylum seekers in Lombok (Attachment 1) and also with UNHCR recognized Afghan refugees waiting in Surabaya and in Chepong and Jakarta for resettlement and/or family reunion (Attachment 3).

Through my years of advocacy work I have become familiar with the letter and the spirit of human rights and refugee conventions, and I was disturbed to hear from asylum seekers widespread accusations, allegations and comments which reflected on the fairness and honesty of UNHCR processes in Indonesia. All of these interviews were recorded on video by me, and this fact has been communicated to the UNHCR Jakarta office to Tony Garcia in Jakarta Office.

My aim is to help both UNHCR and the asylum seekers through the conduct of a free, fair and just review process and a just result which is humane and lasting.


I returned to Indonesia (Bali) from Brisbane on 6th March and traveled by ferry the next day to Lombok. At 8:30 am on 8th March I was at the Immigration Office of Polda Polisi (District Police), where a meeting was being held between the head of Immigration Office of Lombok and the male and female Protection Officers, Mr Reuben and Mrs Selvi who had come from the UNHCR Malaysian Office. The interpreters, Mr Mahmoud and Mrs Darwis, were present at the discussion. After 9 am I was called to participate and required to show my passport. The matter of my tourist visa was raised and it was noted that I hade no work permit and, therefore, could not be actively involved in work.

I made clear my volunteer status and that I assisted refugees and asylum seekers in an unpaid, honorary capacity. I stated that I would obey the laws of the country. I explained that the agreement reached between UNHCR and myself two weeks before included my conditional participation – see above.

Several telephone calls were made to UNHCR Jakarta, resulting in my participation being limited to observation and note taking only. However, if I wished I could make a written submission following the interview. In the absence of an alternative, I agreed to this, and said as a protest, I would never surrender my rights to speak. UNHCR officers and their interpreters, on the direction from the Jakarta office, I believe, subsequently avoided direct communication with me, to the extreme extent of avoiding even common courtesies like “Good morning?” or “How did you sleep?” Maintaining this distance for seven days was a memorable act on their part.

(A personal note. This rejection served to remind me of my ethnic and cultural history. This is not first time that the Hazaras have been treated like this, nor is it likely to be the last. More recently, the Australian government included Gholam Abbas in a delegation to meet asylum seekers on Nauru, even though (or, possibly, because) he was not a widely recognized ‘community leader’ and was in fact compromised through his previous paid participation as a member of a Department of Immigration delegation to Nauru tasked with encouraging voluntary repatriation. For the record, I note that the Nauru asylum seekers had delivered a signed document nominating me as authorized to speak for them as their chosen representative, to IOM on site and UNHCR by fax.)

Drawing on the details in the:

  • UNHCR Review Interviews: Attachment 1

  • Complaints and Allegations : Attachment 2

  • Java Interviews: Attachment 3


I respectfully offer the following recommendations.

Hassan Ghulam

April 2004


  • As a matter of priority, reunite UNHCR recognised refugees in Indonesia with their families in Australia.

  • Monitor and report on the arrangements made with UNHCR and IOM in Indonesia to care for refugees and ‘failed asylum seekers’ who had reached Australian waters.

  • Immediately improve the living conditions of those in IOM care – especially access to mental health care, education and support for communication.

  • End the ‘Pacific Solution’ - assess and care for asylum seekers onshore and do so in a fully accountable manner and to humane and Australian standards.
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