May 30, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Ugly sanctuary

Published: Mar 13, 2016

 Sindhunata Hargyono

In mid 2015, I visited the Galang Island Refugee Camp Museum, accompanied by Abu Nawas. As we were going down to the nearby village perched on top of a hill, Abu Nawas recalled his impression of Galang in the early 1990s. ‘It felt like a dream. It was a beautiful little city back then.’ He stopped at an intersection for a cigarette break. It was the middle of the night and the moon barely lit the trees in the field around us. As he blew out kretek smoke, he pointed to the spot where the coffee shop where he learned to love Vietnamese coffee once stood. He also pointed to where there used to be wooden barracks, the homes of many of his friends who had taught him Vietnamese. Abu Nawas grew up on Galang Island helping his mother cook in a staff cafeteria at the refugee camp. Today he works at the museum as a security guard.

From the 1970s until 1990s, Galang played a huge role in dealing with asylum seekers in Indonesia. During that period, a refugee processing centre was built to accommodate hundreds of thousands of Indochinese asylum seekers. Those from Vietnam were the major population in Galang, along with a small number of Cambodians. The Vietnamese were fleeing after the fall of Saigon in 1975. This event marked the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of Vietnam’s reunification which was followed by harsh government policies implemented by the new socialist regime. The policies especially targeted suspected pro-western southern Vietnamese. 

The island became a temporary sanctuary for Vietnamese asylum seekers before they were resettled elsewhere. They were engaged in preparation programs where they learned the language of their destination country and undertook some vocational training. As a transit point for asylum seekers for decades, Galang was also transformed into a kind of camp town, crowded with Vietnamese cafes, baguette bakeries and other small businesses. Some asylum seekers arrived in Indonesia carrying valuables from Vietnam and could afford to start small businesses. A former Social Officer of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who worked in Galang told me she saw one person arriving with expensive diamonds. Some asylum seekers would also receive money from their relatives overseas. Abu Nawas recalled that he was once paid by an asylum seeker to buy a sewing machine in the nearby city of Tanjung Pinang. 

Today, the humble and underfunded museum has replaced the refugee processing centre. It has become a site memorial to remind visitors that Indonesia took part in solving a regional humanitarian problem. Despite this major humanitarian achievement, it is worth noting that Galang also stands for the ugly face of corruption, deception and violence perpetrated by the authorities. I do not mean to play down the role of refugee processing centres in solving the Indochinese refugee situation. Rather, I want to show that Galang was not, as is usually thought, purely humanitarian.

The establishment of the centre 

During the 1970s, the number of Indochinese asylum seekers arriving in nearby countries began to rise significantly. By December 1978, the number was quadruple that of the previous year. During this period, most of the arriving asylum seekers were Hoa (Vietnamese of Chinese descent). They fled Vietnam due to unfavourable conditions, including the confiscation of their businesses by the government. The increasing number of arrivals forced the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries to find a solution. In February 1979 at an ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Bangkok, Indonesia and the Philippines took the initiative of offering islands to become refugee processing centres 

In December 1980, the refugee processing centre was completed. For the next six years, Galang and other centres seemed to work well as the number of new arrivals became fewer than those who had departed and been resettled elsewhere. From 1987 to 1988, however, the number of Indochinese arrivals increased from 32,994 to 62,348. This increase was a result of new migration routes from Vietnam to Thailand and Hong Kong. Once again, the international community had to come up with a collective approach to deal with the challenge.

The Comprehensive Plan of Action and the fear of repatriation

In June 1989, as a response to the resurgence of asylum seekers, a new scheme was introduced and adopted by the international community. This scheme was the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA), which included the implementation of refugee status determination (RSD). Previously, Indochinese asylum seekers were automatically granted prima facie refugee status. RSD meant that those who arrived in Indonesia after 17 March 1989 would follow a procedure to determine if they were refugees under the Refugee Convention. Asylum seekers who arrived after that date faced the possibility of being repatriated to Vietnam if determined not to be refugees. 

Even though the international community saw the CPA as a promising and durable solution for Indochinese refugees, most of the asylum seekers in transit did not like the idea of possible repatriation. In June 1993, there were 9000 asylum seekers who had not been granted resettlement in a third country. They were encouraged to return to Vietnam, in part because the Indonesian government had decided to include Galang Island in the Batam expansion project, which required the closing down of camps. Of the 9000, only 2000 were willing to go back to Vietnam. 

In April 1994, Vietnamese President Le Duc Anh visited Indonesia and made an agreement with President Suharto to expedite the repatriation of non-refugees. During the visit, 400 to 500 refugees in Galang protested against repatriation. Seventy-nine people on a hunger strike had to be rushed to a hospital.  One of the protesters set himself on fire and died two days later. 

This case of self-immolation shows that for some asylum seekers the idea of going back to Vietnam was worse than death. Some asylum seekers hanged themselves. Abu Nawas remembers attending a farewell party for a Vietnamese friend who was to be repatriated the following day. The next day, however, she hanged herself. 

Questionable screening process

The fear of repatriation was also mixed with perceptions of unfairness flowing from the expedited and corrupt screening processes. Letters from Galang described violent treatment perpetrated by camp officials. In October 1994, asylum seekers expressed their concern about unfair screening, only to be beaten by police and soldiers. Galang officials summoned 80 people who were identified as demonstration leaders for a discussion regarding the protesters’ concerns. These demonstration leaders, however, ended up in Tanjung Pinang detention centre.

The fast-tracked, expedited nature of the screening process on the island raised questions about the integrity of RSD on Galang. In July 1995, the US House of Representatives hosted a hearing on the CPA. This hearing was held amid growing concern about inhumane practices against Indochinese asylum seekers in refugee processing centres. Former CPA official Simon Jeans testified about his experience in Galang in 1991. He, alongside Indonesian interviewers, was pressured to expedite screening interviews because a member of the Indonesian legislature wanted the screening process completed by 1992. He sceptically recounted witnessing an interviewer who kept banging on a table and shouting to get a yes or no answer from interviewees. This person managed to complete 30 interviews in two days to prove that expedited screening was possible. Based on Jeans’ experience, a proper interview should cover the whole life story and details of persecution that the asylum seeker had experienced. Such details, of course, are far more complex than yes or no answers. 

From Jeans’ conversations with Vietnamese who were later resettled in Canada, the US and Australia, he also found that many asylum seekers waiting for a screening decision were requested to pay US$1000–7000 to Indonesian officials. Many of them thought that they were successful because they paid the money, not because their claims to refugee status were legitimate. The asylum seekers who did not pay had their applications delayed or screened out. Buddhist monk Thich Phuoc Sung’s testimony strengthened Jeans’ claims. Sung testified that in 1990 he refused to pay US$7000 for his initial screening. He failed the screening, and his two appeals were unsuccessful. In 1993, he decided to borrow US$7000 from his networks and paid the officials as requested. He received refugee status and was resettled in the US the next year. 

It is very likely that most of the asylum seekers targeted for such practices of extortion were those who had relatives already resettled in third countries. Indonesian officials had information about overseas relatives who could help the refugees obtain the requested money. In the same House of Representatives hearing, Allen Tran recalled his experience visiting his two brothers in Galang in 1992. He was asked for US$5000 by an official to secure his brothers’ refugee status. He refused and reported the request to the US embassy in Singapore. The official was fired, while Tran’s brothers were mistreated, abused and repatriated, probably as retaliation by the official’s colleagues. 

Some might say that Galang is a monument to Indonesian humanitarianism in the twentieth century. That claim may be strange for a project under the authoritarian New Order. Furthermore, it would also ignore the massacre in the 1960s, decades of mass political incarceration, violent annexation of East Timor and the ubiquitous repression of civilians. Through the establishment of Galang, Indonesia certainly took part in resettling the displaced Indochinese. Yet, as illustrated by this article, the sanctuary was also infested with corruption and violence.

Sindhunata Hargyono ( is a 2015 Arryman Fellow. He is currently undertaking his pre-doctoral training at the History Department of Northwestern University.

Inside Indonesia 124: Apr-Jun 2016{jcomments on}

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