Adrift In a sea of despair

By Chris McCall
Courier Mail
SAT 27 OCT 2001

Indonesia has responded to the people smuggling issue as stranded asylum seekers vow to continue their push

'Australia is a free country and it is a country where we can feel free'

POLICE officers milled about as the survivors settled in at yet another temporary shelter near the Jakarta satellite town of Bogor.

Despite a language barrier, they tried to persuade the stunned Iraqis to give statements about the smugglers who put them on a leaky boat to die.

The police have not acted against the syndicates for years, but this time they had to do something. This time, their actions were under the scrutiny of the international press.

But the Iraqi survivors would not play ball. Nearly locked up by Indonesian immigration after the hellish voyage, they declared themselves under the protection of the United Nations. They do not trust anyone anymore. Not a single UN official was in sight.

This shipwreck has left both Indonesia and Australia looking heartless. A disaster waiting to happen ever since the standoff over the MV Tampa last month at Christmas Island, it cost more than 350 Middle Eastern asylum seekers their lives. The top commanders of the corruption-riddled Indonesian police have struggled for explanations after survivors accused police of collaborating with the people-trafficking gangs.

Survivors say some of the passengers tried to get off the leaky boat before it set sail from southern Sumatra. Police forced them back at gunpoint.

Prime Minister John Howard's tough stance against illegal immigration now looks mean, petty and thoughtless, just days before a general election he hopes to win, partly on this issue.

These asylum seekers cannot speak English and all they know about Australia is that it is a land where human rights are respected.

'Why do we seek to go to Australia? Because Australia is a free country and it it is a country where we can feel free. It is a country where we can have some human rights,' Ahmad Hussain, 18, said forlornly.

But who wants them? And perhaps more importantly, who is willing to pay for them? They are a problem no one -- including their governments -- wants.

Australia's suggestion of establishing better holding centres in Indonesia looks hopelessly impractical and will not solve the issue. How can you patrol every part of a nation of far-flung islands?

And how do you satisfy the asylum seekers, many of whom have lived for years in a refugee limbo world, shifting between countries and camps, always on the wrong side of everything and everyone?

Many have escaped dictatorial regimes in Iraq or Afghanistan through expensive and dangerous means. They can expect little help from their embassies. The Iraqis avoid contact with their own diplomats, fearing reprisals against their relatives in Iraq.

A few may get lucky, if they can convince UN interviewers they are refugees. But that process may take months, or years. If accepted, they get about $100 to live on a month and UNHCR workers try to find countries willing to take them. But there is already a huge waiting list.

If they are rejected, they face deportation and may be returned home. In some cases, that would be a certain death sentence. At best, they are left stranded in holding centres, with little money, often unable to speak the language. Survivors say UNHCR staff have privately urged them to find their own solution if they are rejected.

So it's little surprise that, within days of getting back to land, some of the shipwreck survivors were back in contact with Indonesia's shady human trafficking syndicates.

They say new boats are already on their way to Australia and are talking of getting another boat to try again for Australia or just to go back to the spot where their loved ones died and hurl themselves to their death.

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