The number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia from Indonesia has increased dramatically, leading to diplomatic strains between the two countries

Cisarua, a small township which is an hour’s drive from Jakarta, is set amongst golden-green terraced hills, making it a popular destination for day-trippers from the Indonesian capital. But for many hundreds of people it is far from an idyll, representing instead a half-life of dashed hopes and waiting. In the warren of cheap housing that flanks Cisarua’s main market, you can occasionally spot their faces peeking out from behind laundry-strewn verandahs. They are a motley crew of Afghan Hazaras, Myanmar Rohingyas and Sri Lankan Tamils, but their numbed expressions indicate the shared fate of the asylum seeker.

A nation of immigrants

Indonesia is usually thought of as a country of emigrants, given that hundreds of thousands of Indonesian workers go abroad to seek work every year. What is less known is that the country has also become a nation of immigrants, as thousands of illegal asylum seekers and economic migrants travel to Indonesia in the hope of eventually making it to Australia. Christmas Island, an Australian territory, is only 220 miles south of Indonesia and is the most common destination for the “boat people” — thousands of illegal refugees who attempt the journey to Australia by boat.

There were 11,132 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Indonesia as of August 2013 — representing a 54.8 per cent increase over the same period in 2012. The largest numbers of new asylum seekers registered in 2013 were Afghans (51.4 per cent), followed by ethnic Rohingyas from Myanmar (11.8 per cent). UNHCR found that refugees have no legal rights in Indonesia. The country is not a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention or its protocol. They are, however, permitted to stay on a temporary basis, pending the processing of their asylum claims. UNHCR data reveals that the number of arrivals to Indonesia has increased significantly from 385 persons in 2008 to 5,767 in the first eight months of 2013.

A sizable proportion of these migrants, in addition to the hundreds who do not register with the UNHCR, try to make the journey to Australia in overcrowded and underequipped fishing boats, often with disastrous consequences. More than 800 people making the trip since 2009 have died in sea accidents, according to figures from Australia’s Department of Immigration. The number of “boat people” arriving in Australia has been rising dramatically from 161 in 2007 to 17,202 in 2012. The first seven months of 2013 nearly eclipsed that total with 15,182 asylum seekers arriving on 218 boats.

The issue of “boat people” is one of Australia’s defining fears, a political hot potato on which elections are won and lost. Even the relatively liberal labour government took a hard-line stance on boat arrivals, ahead of the September elections last year. The then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced in July that all asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat would be sent to Papua New Guinea for “assessment” and not be resettled in Australia, irrespective of their circumstances.

The move failed to prevent the labour government from falling. Tony Abbott’s conservatives came to power with a “tow back the boats” policy as their main electoral plank. All intercepted boat arrivals from Indonesia are now turned around and sent back there. Canberra has also indicated it will buy up Indonesian fishing boats to prevent them from being used for people smuggling as well as pay local informants in Indonesia for information on these smugglers. Jakarta views these measures as an infringement of its sovereignty with the result that tensions between Australia and Indonesia have been spiralling. But despite Indonesia’s misgiving, from an Australian point of view they have been effective. According to the Australia Immigration and Border Protection Minister, there were only 901 illegal maritime arrivals from October to December 2013. This is the lowest number of would-be-immigrants arriving by boat for the same three months since 2008.

An asylum seeker’s journey

Ali Abbas Josh, 33, a Hazara Afghan, has spent most of his adult life in Quetta, Pakistan. He has been trying to seek asylum in Australia for over a decade. Josh first made the trip to Indonesia in 2000, taking a plane till Thailand and then a boat via Malaysia, for which he paid an ‘agent’ in Pakistan $4,000. He then made two abortive attempts to make it by boat to Australia. Finally, Josh returned to Afghanistan in 2004, where he found work with a Christian NGO. In 2005, he says he was captured by the Taliban and tortured for three days. He shows healed cuts that lacerate his arms and upper body as proof.

This time round, Josh has been in Cisarua since July last year and has registered with the UNHCR. Even though his case is still pending, he will not risk the boat journey to Australia again, given Canberra’s new policies. “My life is a game that everyone else plays with,” he says. Josh has learnt Bahasa Indonesia and has become popular as an interpreter for the asylum seeking-community in Cisarua. One family he is acquainted with from his days in Quetta is that of Mohammad Maisem.

Mohammad sits in the living room of his small rented home with his wife, sister-in-law, and three nephews. He describes how his brother, a Hazara police officer in Quetta, was killed in a bomb blast in the city’s Hazara-dominated district last year. “It has become intolerable for us (Hazaras),” he states baldly, in Urdu. “Our children get kidnapped on their way to school. Two of my other brothers are missing and we don’t know where they are.” Mohammad’s widowed sister-in-law unsmilingly corrals her children. Reluctantly they comply and entertain themselves by looking through the photo albums of an Indonesian photographer who is accompanying me. The albums are from the photographer’s travels through Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the kids are excited to be looking at familiar vistas. “Look,” says the four-year-old knowledgably, pointing to a picture of elderly Afghans drinking tea, guns stacked next to them. “A Kalashnikov.”

Mohammad sighs. “Our children talk about detonations and guns and explosives instead of Mickey Mouse. That is why we had to leave.”

Like Josh, Mohammad and his family are also awaiting a formal interview with the UNHCR. Having sold their home and car in Quetta to pay for the journey, they have been in Indonesia since November last year and remain hopeful of finding asylum legally.

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