The blind eye of UNHCR Indonesia – writes in detail an asylum seeker from Indonesia

September 08, 2013


When a person under persecution flees his country, he automatically becomes orphan.  There is a good saying that country is mother and a person without country becomes orphan. Life becomes miserable as an undocumented stranger in other countries where a human’s basic rights and needs are not given to him. An asylum seeker’s life is a miserable life in real. 

 Asylum seeking is an old issue which was focussed upon for the first time by the international coordinated efforts through League of Nations in early 20th century. The purpose was inter alia to protect human rights and render humanitarian assistance and resettlement solutions to the persecuted people fleeing their countries – whom I call the orphans. After establishment of United Nations Organization under its popular Charter in 1945, other refugee rights promoting organizations were founded and reinforced. UNHCR is one of such entities which is mandated to promote and run programs for protection of asylum seekers and refugees.

 Indonesia is a transit area for thousands of asylum seekers annually whose final destination is predominantly Australia. But among them are the asylum seekers that prefer to stay in Indonesia and approach UNHCR with a hope to get assistance to return to a safe normal life.

 As the only main UN entity for refugees, UNHCR is the first and the last hope of the asylum seekers that avoid joining the dangerous boat journey. Most of them had to flee their countries, to join the world of orphanhood, because of persecution, violence and life threats. They lost many things like peace, family members, honour, career and country. Has the UNHCR in Indonesia played a good role as their first and the last hope? As one of the asylum seekers my answer to this question is negative unfortunately. Not only this but also because of poor management, low performance capacity of some staffs and inadequate human and material resources, in several cases, UNHCR has exacerbated the already vulnerable mental and physical conditions of detained asylum seekers particularly.

 One of the biggest problems is UNHCR’s unbalanced and disorganised attention towards different Immigration Detention Centres. It has contributed to creation of a big difference, in terms of interviews and case processing, among IDCs in several locations. For example asylum seekers in Tanjun Pinang and Medan IDCs are interviewed within 1-3 months after registration, but those in Jakarta and Surabaya IDCs are usually interviewed within 6-12 months after registration. Similarly the time period taken to process cases and issue results after interview considerably depends on the manner and even nationality of the UNHCR Case Officers. In this way many unlucky asylum seekers have to wait for years in detention until they get refugee status from UNHCR. The Luck-UNHCR inter-relation clarifies that UNHCR has two eyes. One is blind and the other is sighted. Those in front of the sighted eye are lucky and those in front of the blind eye are misfortunate. But why should they suffer when their bad luck has roots in the incapability and incompetency of UNHCR? Actually their bad luck can be turned into good luck by curing the blind eye of UNHCR through better management of the resources, fair allocation of staff, capacity building and more accountability of Case Officers.

 UNHCR’s inaccessibility and selfish policies towards detained asylum seekers make their lives more miserable. While the life is already very troublesome for them because of poor behaviour and bad treatment of the Indonesian Immigration staffs. The fact that Indonesia has not signed the Refugee Convention is always enough reason for the Immigration Officers to ignore asylum seekers’ basic needs and treat them as criminals or undignified people. They do not want to understand that the asylum seekers are honoured personalities back in their countries and being an asylum seeker is not a choice for them. In this situation in detention, UNHCR’s inaccessibility and incapability exacerbates their anguish.

<p>Barat Ali Batoor</p>

A local government official flicks through the UNHCR files of asylum seekers registered in his subdistrict. PHOTO: BARAT ALI BATOOR Source: theglobalmail

 For asylum seekers in detention, contact to UNHCR has become an impossible job. Weekly, on Fridays, two hours contact time is allocated to the total asylum seekers and refugees. There are around 10,000 asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia. If half of this amount try to contact UNHCR on a Friday and if each successful person talks for 12 minutes, out of 5,000 only 10 can get the contact. In percentage there is only 0.2% chance of making the contact which is equivalent to no chance. I have tried several Fridays, but even by saying prayers and using certain magical words I have not been able to make a single contact. I am sure even the best magician in the world cannot make the contact for you! As far as the general email inbox of UNHCR ( is concerned, I doubt if any one is assigned to check it properly and respond to the incoming correspondence. As far as I remember, none of the emails that my friends and I have sent to this inbox have received any response nor have there been any outcomes resulting from them. On the other hand, the Case Officers deny to give their contact number and email address to their interviewees, claiming that they are not allowed to do so. So the detained asylum seekers cannot receive information regarding their case nor can they provide any new vital information and concern for the case. I would like to ask UNHCR and concerned entities if this is fair. Should a detained anguished asylum seeker have the right to contact the office mandated to listen to his concerns and process his case? After interview if his family members have been recently killed in a bomb explosion or suicide attack or targeted killing, how can he add this to his case? How should he inform the Case Officer or UNHCR that he is going crazy in the ambiguous world of asylum seekers because his dearest ones have been killed recently? Does this type of new condition created after interview have importance for UNHCR? Principally this type of information should be added to the case which definitely helps to make a correct decision. If the information is important then how the contact should be made?

 It is a weird situation. Instead of having access to lawyers and facilities for consulting and organizing cases, asylum seekers are even further deprived of contacts with their case processing organization.

 If there is a will, the problems can be solved by UNHCR. They should increase the days and hours of contact and assign more Case Officers to listen to the issues and concerns. In this way the contacts to UNHCR will be made easily which can lead to a better condition for the Case Officers to give their contact numbers to their interviewees unhesitatingly. Because there will not be a flood of irrelevant phone calls to them. There will be other accessible relevant contact points available in UNHCR. Thus a proper communication between Case Officers and their interviewees will be insured.

 In response to such queries I have been usually told that UNHCR does not have adequate human resources. But this point cannot be a satisfactory justification anymore. It is a decade that UNHCR Indonesia operates with high number of asylum seekers. So the administrative needs and matters should have been solved by now. Its a long period. UNHCR Indonesia should get approval of enough funds through effective and efficient reasoning and proper justification of the need. Asylum seekers in Indonesia has a long history and has turned into a permanent phenomenon. Unfortunately the issue of inadequate resources is being used as a mere justification instead of seeking solution for it. Is it fair to let the asylum seekers suffer because of poor capacity of UNHCR? Why is not this capacity developed?

 It is one year that I am hearing about policies of UNHCR Indonesia repeatedly. These policies sound very rigid and non-humanitarian which show incompatibility with UNHCR’s mandated roles. The asylum seekers suffer from post-incident trauma and are worried about their families remained in crisis. On the other hand, they are treated inhumanely by Immigration Officers. In this bad situation, instead of helping them urgently, UNHCR’s shortcomings and oversight cause them to remain in detention for longer ambiguous periods. Remained with no other option they conduct hunger-strike to communicate and receive attention and to say that they are forgotten and the blind eye can not see them. But their final attempt for communication is suppressed by UNHCR’s policy. According to this policy UNHCR does not visit those on hunger-strike. So they are further abandoned in the dire situation. I understand that this policy is designed to prevent other potential hunger-strikes. But it would be fair only if the asylum seekers had other possible ways of contact and they were not compelled to conduct hunger strikes merely to communicate their concerns and cry out that they are victims in the unbalanced attention of UNHCR towards the detention centres.

 While Australia has increased its refugee quota for Indonesia to 700 per year, UNHCR’s working manner still remains slow to the extent that some asylum seekers have to wait for a year to be interviewed. Those being interviewed within 1-2 months are the lucky ones because they are in front of the sighted eye. Why is one eye of UNHCR blind? This can also be part of a policy. One month ago a credible person told me that UNHCR might not be able to provide 700 refugees to Australia this year because its process is very slow. I thought it was totally unfair if UNHCR might not manage to meet the quota while thousands of deservers are crazily waiting to get a pass through the refugee process. This maybe a wrong forecast and very pessimistic view, but one thing is sure that UNHCR in Indonesia tries to keep the number of refugees under a limit. In this process the victimized asylum seekers should be deliberately ignored for long periods. Therefore the slow working manner and lack of will to improve the system might have connections to this policy. The reason to this policy can be financial, operational and political. Maybe UNHCR thinks that if the asylum seekers were given refugee status in a fairly quick process, other asylum seekers around the world would be encouraged to migrate to Indonesia. This means more refugees, more asylum seekers and more load of works on the poorly organized weak structure of UNHCR. This policy makes a lesson of the asylum seekers in Indonesia to send a discouraging message to others. This is totally inhumane and victimizes the genuine asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia.

The problem is that UNHCR does not want to solve the problems by confronting them but instead turns a blind eye to them. The current working approach and continuation of unjust policies is not the solution to the issues. They do not suit the humanitarian nature of its works. I know that UNHCR’s work is not easy. It is full of problems and challenges. But they should not be used as excuse to do improper things. There is always a proper way of doing things. UNHCR should change and promote its approaches according to the need.



Filed under Asylum Seekers in Indonesia, HAS Exclusive, UNHCR

2 responses to “The blind eye of UNHCR Indonesia – writes in detail an asylum seeker from Indonesia

  1. Mo

    So many ‘rights’ and so little money. Time each country and person started sorting out their own problems at home. We can’t keep expecting the UNHCR to solve all these problems. It worked after the second world war when asylum seekers were genuinely in need of refuge but there are too many people now searching for a better life by fleeing their country. Australia, for example, can’t take everyone who wants a better life. Pity, but that’s the reality.

  2. The writing reflects the facts the asylum seekers face in Indonesia, specially those in detention. It is the very time UNHCR in Indonesia brings a positive reform in its aproach and policies. Many of the shortcomings of UNHCR can be corrected easily if there is a will in the organization.

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