Asylum seekers risk all for Australian dreamland

July 6, 2012 - 6:39 AM
Indonesia Australia Dreamland

In this photo taken June 28, 2012, asylum seekers, from left to right, Soudeh Mohammadpour, her brother Mehran, Saad Abdul Azm, Zoleikha Golpur and Mojtada Bahadori stand outside their temporary home in Cisarua, West Java, Indonesia. Indonesia became a major transit point for thousands of asylum seekers from various countries who is trying to illegally enter New Zealand and Australia. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

CISARUA, Indonesia (AP) — Rahmatullah Afzaly says the thought of boarding a rickety Indonesian fishing boat in roiling seas, crammed with hundreds of other asylum seekers, is terrifying. But it's nothing compared to his fear of the Taliban.

His lips quiver and he struggles to keep the tears inside as he allows his memory to drift back home to Afghanistan, where scores of ethnic Hazaras like himself have been captured, tortured and killed by Islamic militants.

He and thousands of other asylum seekers from various war-ravaged and impoverished countries have made it to Indonesia, but Australia is where they seek a better life. And they are risking death to find it.

Unwilling to languish for years here in detention centers while their cases are heard, many board smugglers' boats to attempt the 500-kilometer (300-mile) trip to Australia's Christmas Island.

Concern over the journey has escalated in the past three weeks. Two boats capsized and another was rescued in rough seas while en route to Christmas Island, which is closer to Indonesia than mainland Australia. More than 90 people are believed to have died, and hundreds more have drowned in similar accidents that have become commonplace over the past few years.

"We know that we can die on our way ... but there is no life in our country," Afzaly says, weeping softly. Four other men from his homeland, all minority Shia Muslims, cover their faces to hide their own emotions inside the small rented house they share in West Java province.

"If we can reach the safe country, then we will have a better future," he says. "That's why we choose to take whatever risk."

The incidents have sparked a fresh wave of fierce debate in Australia, where the two main political parties agree that the asylum seekers should be sent elsewhere but remain deadlocked over where to take them. Meanwhile, the dilapidated boats keep coming, loaded with migrants who believe their cases will be processed faster if they make it to Australian shores.

The number arriving by boat has more than doubled since 2000. So far this year, more than 70 vessels carrying about 5,200 migrants have reached Australia, according to immigration officials.

When boats sink, it is often the Australians who respond. Indonesia says it lacks the resources to conduct large search-and-rescue sea operations. Sometimes, the smugglers sabotage the boats or issue false distress signals, hoping to be rescued and whisked off to Christmas Island.

Afzaly, a 32-year-old furniture maker, left his new bride with nothing more than a promise that he would bring her to a better life — or die trying. He sold his family's shop for $40,000 to pay a network of people smugglers for passage first to Pakistan and Malaysia by plane, then to Indonesia by boat.

He's living in Cisarua, a mountainous area about 80 kilometers (50 miles) southeast of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. It has become a stopping point for many fleeing persecution who hope to reach their Australian dreamland.

When they make it to Indonesia, many register with the U.N. to apply for refugee status overseas. Nearly 6,000 people there have done so and are waiting to be resettled, but as time passes with no word about their status, many grow frustrated and impatient. Others skip the step entirely, unwilling to wait at the end of the line of applicants in cramped Indonesian detention centers.

In recent years, Australia has resettled more than 13,000 refugees annually from both offshore sites and from within its borders. Most come from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

A spike in boat arrivals was seen in 2009, not long after Australia relaxed its immigration policies and closed a detention center on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, where boat arrivals were housed for long periods. Prime Minister Julia Gillard reached a deal to send them to Malaysia last year, but the High Court struck down her effort to implement it without parliament's approval. The opposition, citing concern about Malaysia's human rights record, wants the asylum seekers sent back to Nauru.

Ian Rintoul, spokesman for the Sydney-based Refugee Action Coalition, says the problem could be eased if Australia did more to help those waiting in Indonesia. Only 57 of them had been resettled through the first five months of this year, he said.

"Australia is willing take people from camps in other parts of the world, but it is unwilling to take them from its own back door," Rintoul said. "It's the Australian government's policies which are forcing people to get on boats. That's the hypocrisy."

Many migrants first hear about the risky journey at home on the Internet or through word of mouth. They sell their land and all their belongings and hand over fistfuls of cash to people smugglers who make arrangements for travel documents, fake passports and the necessary bribes. They typically travel alone and are met by a network of contacts directing them on to the next stop. Sometimes, they are swindled and left stranded and penniless.

Indonesia has vowed to crack down on those organizing the trips. Authorities recently arrested an Afghan man suspected of smuggling asylum seekers to Australia, including those aboard a boat that capsized June 21, killing at least 17 and leaving more than 70 others missing and presumed dead.

But desperation continues to motivate many to overlook the risks. For about $8,000, they take their chances aboard a small fishing boat with few provisions and often no safety gear.

"It's been a year that I have been here," said Saad Abdulazm, 29, who borrowed $21,000 from his brother to pay smugglers to help him flee the Kurdistan region of Iraq a year ago, first flying to Malaysia and then Jakarta. "How long am I supposed to wait?"

He knows the dangers of the sea all too well. Last May, he was aboard a boat with his wife and 2-year-old son when a 3-meter (10-foot) wave smashed their overcrowded vessel three days into the journey. The family clung to pieces of debris while being battered by choppy waves and high winds for hours in open ocean.

All 110 people aboard were rescued by Indonesian fishermen, but Abdulazm says he will take the same risk with his family again if his papers do not come through within the next two years.

"I want to pursue a better life, a better future for my son. I want him to live and attend school in a safe country, far from war and violence ... that's why I took this route," he says as he cradles the toddler. "When the time comes for my son to attend school, if there is still no certainty, I will take a boat again to reach Australia."

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Associated Press writer Margie Mason contributed to this report.