Asylum-seekers in limbo in Indonesia, waiting for a boat

February 09, 2013

Hazara asylum-seeker Ali Nowroz

Hazara asylum-seeker Ali Nowroz, seen in Jakarta, fled Quetta after receiving death threats. Source: Supplied

MOHAMMAD Hussein is in no-man’s-land. The 30-year-old Pakistani from Quetta, where about 120 people were blown up in multiple terrorist attacks last month, has been waiting in Indonesia for 10 years for refugee status to enter Australia. The bomb blasts are a rude reminder of why he won’t budge from his objective.

Now he’s lingering in the waiting room of Jakarta’s immigration centre, a respite from the detention area and a reward for his interpreting skills. Sometimes the illegal immigrant ventures into the teeming metropolis “to refresh my mind”. But he always returns to his home of two years. He has nowhere else to go and no money.

Contending for the past decade with an overburdened bureaucracy that perhaps regards his case as tenuous, or disingenuous, the Shi’ite Muslim has been shunted from one Indonesian detention shelter to another. He is fluent in Farsi, Urdu, Bahasa Indonesia, English and his native Pashto, so there is no shortage of unpaid work for him at the centre.


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Hussein has been neglected for the past decade and, lacking purpose, feels demoralised and depressed. He has no job prospects on grounds of ineligibility.

“I want to have a wife and family but how can I? This is no life. I have lost one decade,” he says.

His pleas to apply for refugee status at the Jakarta office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees have gone unheeded since 2001. Now the UNHCR has promised him a decision soon. If he doesn’t receive the stamp of approval he will hire a human rights lawyer. “I cannot go back, it’s too dangerous,” he says, referring to the atrocities perpetrated against Shi’ites in Pakistan.

As the years roll by, authorities have left Hussein and others like him languishing. A spokesman at Indonesia’s Johor Bahru consulate in Malaysia, the former head of illegal immigrants at Indonesia’s Directorate General of Immigration, says he doesn’t know how long the Pakistani can legally stay in Indonesia.

“I don’t know what the limit is. We have talked to his embassy,” he says. “We cannot deport him because he is very afraid to go to his country. We cannot deport him according to the UN Refugee Convention, even if we are not a signatory.” Is he an economic immigrant? “Only the UN knows.”

In the absence of refugee legislation and procedures in Indonesia, the UNHCR provides assistance to refugees and asylum-seekers. Data on those who fall through the net is flimsy. Because so many enter Indonesia illegally – at least 20 to 30 people arrive each day – the discrepancy between Indonesian and UN statistics is vast. Figures from the Directorate General of Immigration show nearly 2500 asylum-seekers in Indonesia, compared with the 7000 calculated by the UN for 2012 until September. Add to that an estimated 100,000 illegal immigrants in Malaysia ready to cross to Indonesia with the intention of going to Australia.

Adrianus Meliala, a professor who until last year was head of the department of criminology at the University of Indonesia, sees the country’s escalating refugee numbers as a ticking time bomb.

He fears the repercussions were the Australian-funded International Organisation for Migration – which feeds and accommodates detainees in Indonesia’s overcrowded de facto processing centres – to pull its funding. Should it stop and Indonesia’s ability to pay for illegal immigrants become overstretched, he says “the time bomb will explode”.

But he concedes: “Australia is doing its best to keep the people-smugglers here. It seems to be a good haven for Australia to keep smuggled people here in Indonesia, using the support of the IOM.”

The arrangement could potentially collapse when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono steps down next year, especially if he is succeeded by presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto, a ruthless former army general with a tainted human rights record and links to former dictator Suharto.

Prabowo, a former son-in-law of Suharto, is considered very likely to win.

“He will be very cruel to Australia,” Meliala says. “He will let the boats go. He will give food and petrol and money to ships and tell them to just go, go to Australia.”

The long time it takes to process asylum-seekers is meanwhile causing a blowout in the numbers of illegal immigrants in Indonesia.

At 20, fearing for his life, Hussein fled his village in the brutal Taliban stranglehold of Parachinar in the Kurram Agency on Pakistan’s Afghan border in 2001. “My life was in danger, my family’s life is in danger. I was scared. They want to kill all the Shia people,” he says. His mother, three brothers and three sisters remain, and one of his brothers was shot in the leg by the Taliban. “Maybe if I go to another country I can bring my family out.”

Attempting the well-trodden asylum-seeker route to Australia in 2001, he paid $5000 to people-smugglers in Quetta, flying from Karachi to Malaysia with about 20 others from Pakistan and Iran. He will not disclose where he obtained the money. From Malaysia, where the smuggler took their passports, the group entered Indonesia by boat at Medan, North Sumatra, and flew to Jakarta.

After two failed attempts to sail to Australia from East Java, they returned to Indonesia. “On the first trip we were more than 270 people,” Hussein says. They turned back when their boat started leaking. During the second attempt, 141 people – mainly Afghans – were stranded on a boat, after its engine failed, for 60 days as food and water ran out. A third attempt was aborted when the smuggler disappeared.

Over six years, Hussein has shuffled between IOM houses in Jakarta, Kupang, West Timor and Puncak in West Java.

He remains stateless in a legal void. Past attempts to reapply have been knocked back, he says. “When I call they say: ‘Wait for process.’ I say, ‘Please give me the humanity. If you reject me, I want to reapply.’ Now I am in here (detention) for two years without any reason. This is like animal staying in here, waiting.”

He is now determined to reach Australia legally. “I don’t want to put my life in danger, I ran away from danger,” Hussein says.

Each night along Jalan Jaksa, the backpackers’ street haunt in central Jakarta, clusters of Iranian, Pakistani and Afghan asylum-seekers gather around cheap food stalls and bars, passing time and listening to music. In fact, their ears are pricked for news of imminent boat passages to Australia. At one of two hubs – the other is Bogor, West Java – they swap information on boats and wait for smugglers’ calls. Trendily clad, they pose as tourists. Many Iranians fly in on tourist visas that allow them up to 60 days in Indonesia while awaiting boats to Australia. Pakistanis and Afghans, denied visas, head to the UNHCR for asylum-seeker certificates.

Scores have left professions such as medicine, law or finance, but quickly exhaust their funds and have no access to facilities. “Many sleep behind the detention centres,” Meliala says. “They don’t have money for an apartment. They look for food. They have to beg at canteens. They go to the local clinics asking for medical treatment, but because they are illegal the doctors cannot serve them.” Infectious diseases are common.

Hazara asylum-seeker Ali Nowroz, who has been in Indonesia for two years, is all too familiar with immigrant stories, having lived in detention in Bogor; he now lives independently near Jalan Jaksa. Describing the dogged perseverance of boatpeople who have been deported from Australia, Nowroz says they frequently return to Indonesia – despite being blacklisted – by bribing officials. Prices range from $700 for Iranians, whose country is regarded as stable, to $12,000 for Pakistanis and Afghans who arrive through covert entry points. Then they again hop on to boats to Australia.

The 25-year-old is in a similar twilight zone to Hussein, although he has asylum-seeker status. As a Shia minority Hazara of Afghan origin, his religious and ethnic roots make him particularly vulnerable to the Sunni Muslim-aligned Taliban insurgency. Being educated also makes him a target. Born in Quetta, the Balochistan University student with easily identifiable Hazara features feared for his life.

Nowroz, who taught English part-time, was in his last semester studying for an MBA when he was targeted and forced to flee his home. “The Taliban tried to kidnap me from the university; I received death threats about three times,” he says.

In 2004, while he walked in a Shia religious procession, about 80 people were killed in a suicide blast around him. Describing the horror, he says: “I saw people carrying the dead bodies away. There were pieces of body, pieces of brain, people with bullets through their eyes. I was traumatised, shocked. It’s hell. How do you think we can live there while we are terrified of everybody?”

Last year his aunt was among 11 killed when terrorists opened fire on a van. Her son joined Nowroz in Jakarta a month ago.

“You’ve got an option: you get killed at Quetta or you move to Nauru,” he says, aware of Australia’s refugee policy. “It’s better than getting a mutilated body and shot in the head.”

While there’s no going back for Nowroz, he’s not fussy about where he may be resettled, but Australia is preferable because “there is a big community of us”.

Fleeing to Indonesia in January 2011, he obtained asylum-seeker status and was placed in detention. He wasn’t interviewed by the UNHCR for refugee status until last August.

“It took the UNHCR 10 months to reply to my interview.” The application was rejected, he claims, because of specious bureaucratic confusion regarding his birthplace and family origin. “They said, ‘You didn’t prove you were Afghan. Your documents are Pakistani, you are not an Afghan.’ ”

He promptly reapplied last July but remains in limbo, awaiting an outcome. He is also repeatedly told to be patient.

It’s like a slow burn and his mental health is at risk after 16 months in detention, from where he escaped. Now he rents a squalid room in a house in central Jakarta for $50 a month, shares a communal bathroom with 30 others and cannot afford more than one meal a day. As he is living independently, the IOM provides no assistance. But it’s better than detention, he reasons.

“I live in dire conditions, with not enough money to eat. I just survive. My monthly expenditure is under $100.” He equates his bleak living conditions with “going into the mines: it’s never clean. I’m not used to living like this.” He survives on small amounts of money from his family.

His uncle recently jumped on a boat to Australia but Nowroz is loath to follow: – though not because he is afraid of treacherous high seas: “My friends say Australian detention is tougher than Indonesia. They call it detention but it’s jail. None of the people come out OK, they’re all mentally ill. In detention … it’s a never-ending waiting.”

Despite this, if his case isn’t processed soon, he will hop on another boat for Australia.

The site of a bomb explosion in Quetta

Hazaras were targeted in bomb attacks in Quetta last month. Source: AFP

Nowroz took the familiar route from Karachi to Indonesia, flying to Thailand and on to east Malaysia with seven Pakistani and Afghan Hazaras. They travelled illegally into the Kalimantan jungle in Indonesian Borneo, where food and drink quickly ran out. The group slept in the mosquito-infested jungle and shuffled between a network of smugglers to whom Nowroz had paid $6000 via a nominated bank account. His uncles – who he says are now in Australia – gave him the money.

A few months later they were on a passage to Australia from Surabaya, East Java, when their leaking boat disintegrated and “we were hanging in the water near Rote Island”. Indonesian police picked them up and Nowroz remained in detention until last July.

As he scrutinises the news, Nowroz, whose goal is to be a writer, says he knew many of those who were killed in last month’s Quetta blasts. “We are a small community and very close. I feel helpless.” It has, however, strengthened his resolve to find a new life. “I am desperate to find a shelter for my family and myself. I will never go back to that butcher house (Pakistan) again.”



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Filed under Asylum Seekers in Indonesia, Hazara Persecution, UNHCR

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