Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (UNHCR's World) - Indonesia: Far from paradise

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1996

Life on a tropical island in Indonesia can be far from paradise, as UNHCR Protection Officer Brian Lander can testify.

By Brian Lander
UNHCR Protection Officer Galang, Indonesia

Brian Lander is a 29-year-old American from Seattle who lives with his wife on a tropical island. His life, however, is far from paradise. Lander is a UNHCR protection officer, responsible for the care and protection of some 4,000 Vietnamese boat-people detained in a military-run camp on Galang island, Indonesia.

By local standards, conditions in the camp are adequate, but spartan. The boat-people live in huts that may leak in monsoon rains, with health-care that is basic and schools they organize themselves. Above all, they live without many options: all have been individually screened by trained adjudicators, and all have been found to have no real claim to refugee status. Because they face no persecution in Viet Nam, and since no resettlement countries will accept them, the Indonesian authorities have decided that they should go home. They can go voluntarily, under the auspices of UNHCR, or they can face deportation. (After years of assisting these and thousands of other screened-out non-refugees, the international community decided that after June 30, 1996, UNHCR should phase out its assistance to Vietnamese boat-people who can safely go home).

Several times a week, Lander crosses to Galang from his home on nearby Bintan island. For many months, he lived on Galang itself, then moved when his wife joined him in Indonesia. As a protection officer, Lander's job involves constantly being on the alert for potential problems that need solving before they get out of hand. That means developing relationships of respect and trust with the boat-people and also with camp officials. Every day brings meetings that may raise new issues, requiring careful follow-up or urgent action on matters ranging from food distribution to the elderly, the urgent medical condition of a newborn, or an adolescent's unpaid debts.

Lander counsels the detainees to volunteer to go home to Viet Nam, pointing out that 80,000 people have already safely done so. He works with refugee women to encourage them to take part in camp activities. When the Vietnamese resisted the election of women to the camp committee, Lander and his local Indonesian Social Services counterpart organized parallel consultative groups of women whom they meet regularly, to ensure that their needs are being met. "The male-dominated camp committees couldn't deal fairly with issues affecting the women in the camp," Lander explains. "On many occasions I found that the camp committee was protecting men in the camp against serious allegations from the women. Only through the women's consultative groups could I get the whole story and decide how best to intervene."

In 1994, there was rioting in Galang. Subsequently, several boat-people who had destroyed property, or who had attacked the authorities with home-made fire-bombs, were arrested, and transferred to Bintan. Lander began visiting them almost daily, insisting that they receive better conditions, arranging for several to be freed, and recognizably improving the lives of many others. To this day, Lander knows the name and background of every one of the detained men. When he walks with a visitor through the cells where they are held, they cluster to speak with him in small, urgent groups.

But perhaps the people whose lives Lander has most improved are among the most vulnerable in the Vietnamese community: teenage girls. Whether under pressure from their parents (who may have been seeking special favours) or from the soldiers and policemen themselves, Lander found that a number of young girls had been involved in sexual liaisons with camp officials, some of them potentially involving a degree of coercion.

The subject was intensely sensitive, both for the Vietnamese community and for Indonesian officialdom, and emerged only after months of regular contacts. Lander kept a cool head, and discreetly (but firmly) raised the issue, again and again, week after week, until it was dealt with and he keeps on raising it, just in case, whenever he senses that the need arises. Today, any suspicion of such a sexual relationship means prompt investigation by Indonesian government officials, with serious sanctions if the allegations are true.

But camp officials in Galang are rotated every six months. So every six months Lander begins a new dialogue with the camp commander and other officers, helping them to relate their day-to-day work to the distant wording of U.N. conventions on refugee law and other human rights issues, and building up a new relationship from scratch. He is part law professor, part prison visitor, part-school counsellor, part-womens' advocate. Every day involves a depth and breadth of responsibility that most 29-year-olds might find crushing.

Meanwhile, Lander lives on an island with plenty of coconut trees and fishing boats, but few medical facilities, no shopping, and erratic phone and electricity service. His wife, a translator, has no employment. "This is a job I care about," Lander says. "But there's no getting past it: it's hard."

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (1996)