July 24, 2013
The chatter stops mid-conversation as the face of the Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, flickers across the television screen in Puncak, a mountain town about 100km from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. As the footage cuts to rows of army green tents flanked by palm trees, the asylum seekers watch intently, trying to compute whether they are staring at their future.
The news of Rudd’s boat people bombshell – that asylum seekers who arrive by boat will have no chance of being resettled in Australia but will instead be sent to Papua New Guinea – is still sinking in.
PNG remains an unknown entity to the ethnic Hazara asylum seekers living here, but to some that is inconsequential. “It takes a lot of time for us to process our cases here, so now I am compelled. I don’t have any other choice but to take a boat to Australia,” says Mohammed Ali.
The shellshocked 32-year-old arrived in Indonesia 20 days ago after he fortuitously escaped a blast in his hometown of Quetta, Pakistan. Like thousands before him he is in Puncak, where asylum seekers invariably end up as they wait for a boat or the years it normally takes to be granted refugee status by the United Nations high commissioner forrefugees (UNHCR).
Between a baseball cap and the “Just Do It” slogan printed on his T-shirt, a look of desperation is fixed on his face. “In Quetta, every day there is a blast, an attack. At night we cannot sleep and during the day we cannot work,” he says. “We don’t have peace and we don’t know what time we will be attacked.”
More than 200 Hazaras have been killed this year in the city by bomb blasts carried out by Sunni extremists. Ali knows he could also die taking a boat to Australia, but life in PNG, he says, is better than being killed in Pakistan.
Some 15,000 people have arrived by boat to Australia this year, and over recent years hundreds have died making the journey.
Sayed Kamaluddin Mousani, 28, one of the six Hazara asylum seekers that share the mattresses on the floor in the Puncak house, says he is confused about policy but he would still take a boat if he could.
The shaggy-haired English teacher from Mazar-i-Sharif, north Afghanistan, fled to Iran after discovering his picture was on a Taliban hit list for teaching an “evil language”. Five months ago he also fled Iran after he was threatened because his older brother works for the BBC’s Persian TV service, a news agency that he was told is “against the Iranian government”.
He has registered with the UNHCR but if he gets the US$5,000 (A$5,430) to pay for a boat he will, even though his mother is begging him not to.
“Most of the time when my mother is speaking to me she says, ‘My dear, don’t go to the ocean. I am your mother, what would happen to you?’ But I think staying here is very difficult,” says Mousani. “When I get the money I will speak to a people smuggler and I will put the money in front of him.”
Down a dark alleyway off the main road, the Hazaras share small, sparse lodgings and tea as they discuss their fate. There are questions and confusion and perhaps optimistic disbelief.
Those that have been here long enough and have followed the twists and turns of Australia’s immigration policy are sceptical the PNG deal is for real this time.
Mohammad Ali Babu, 47, was in detention in Surabaya, Java, when former prime minister Julia Gillard first announced that asylum seekers would be processed in East Timor and then in Malaysia.
“Then, when I was here [in Puncak], Australia announced that asylum seekers will be shifted to Nauru,” he says, “but all their policies are in vain. They didn’t implement it, and they didn’t act upon them.”
Babu, the eldest of the beleaguered Hazara group, says he made a mistake by choosing not to get on a boat after the Nauru announcement.
Asylum seekers he knows have since been through the offshore processing centre and are now resettled in Australia.
Besides Mohammed Ali and Mousani, the other men have all taken shoddy and overloaded boats that capsized, been caught by the authorities and escaped detention – all multiple times. Even before Rudd announced his new policy they had decided to take the legitimate route.
But applying for refugee status with the UNHCR means resigning yourself to living in protracted limbo, sometimes for years.
Kamran Ali, an articulate and fresh-faced 25-year-old who worked for the US army as an interpreter in Afghanistan, waited one year just to get an interview with the UNHCR in Jakarta.
Like the others, Kamran Ali doesn’t know how long it will take to process his case. Even those that have been granted refugee status continue to wait, with no housing or financial support.
Babu, for example, was granted refugee status one year ago but was denied asylum in Australia because “he didn’t fit the criteria”. He believes it is because he is too old.
Now he is waiting to see if the US will accept him.
Of those that have registered with the UNHCR, they all say that if takes too long they might be forced to take a boat. While they wait for word from the UN body they cannot work or study and they can’t afford to stay here indefinitely.
“The process for resettlement in America will take too long,” says Babu. “I don’t have money to survive here and I have been attacked by Indonesian extremists four times. So my survival here is in danger.”
Attacks against the Hazaras in Puncak are also on the rise and most asylum seekers stay in at night to avoid trouble. The International Organisation for Migration is reportedly moving its office and temporary housing in the area due to the rising tensions.
But even during the days of mounting hopelessness, Kamran Ali says he does not regret leaving Quetta where “people have been killed like animals” in front of his eyes.
The 25-year-old says that if the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan does not improve, asylum seekers will continue to come. Another boat left Indonesia on Sunday morning, he says, and in Pakistan, the persecuted Hazaras are willing to travel and take the risk.
After an arduous journey, usually through Thailand and the jungles of Malaysia and Indonesia, they may end up in Puncak wiling away the time, bemoaning the UNHCR and listless days, playing soccer, and swapping stories of ingenious detention escapes.
Alihan Haidary, a 20-year-old Afghani, for example, likes to show newcomers the photo of the 25-metre-long hole he dug with a spoon to escape from a detention centre in Manado, Sulawesi.
English teacher Mousani says he has also been reading, and re-reading the few books he has.
The last book he finished was on René Descartes’ philosophy and he has an interesting take on the key message. Rather than “I think therefore I am”, in Mousani’s mind it is, “I think, therefore I am alive.”