Lindsay Murdoch, Bill Birnbauer and David Elias
The Age

THEY knew the trip on the rotting Indonesian fishing boat would be perilous. They had heard horror stories of refugee boats sinking in the rough seas between Java and their destination, Australia's remote Christmas Island. Stories of everyone drowning. They knew, too, that Egyptian-born Abu Quassey, the head of a Jakartabased people smuggling syndicate, to whom they had paid $A2.5 million, was a gun-toting criminal who had official protection in Jakarta. But the 421 asylum seekers took the risk.

"I had no choice," says Iraqi woman Montaha Sam Adam, 53. "Of course, we knew we may never make it. But unless I reach Australia, I have nothing to live for. All my family are there."

Adam's mother, father, three brothers, son and daughter all live in Sydney, having migrated there legally from Iraq where they were persecuted because they were not Muslims.

"I applied through the normal way to get a visa to travel to Australia legally to be reunited with my family but was refused," she says, sipping tea in a house in the hills south of Jakarta.

"If Australia continues to reject me, I will try to get on another boat. The ocean may take me, but there is no other way."

Adam was among 21 people who paid a passing fisherman to take them in his small boat from the doomed 19-metre vessel they had boarded five hours earlier off the Indonesian island of Sumatra last week.

Almost all the people who stayed on board the bigger boat also wanted to get off. It was dangerously low in the water, one of the two pumps had failed and only 60 to 70 people had life jackets, which, in any event, were too small for most of them.

Pounded by heavy seas, the boat eventually sank, 52 hours after leaving Sumatra, killing more than 350 people in one of Indonesia's worst sea disasters.

The tragedy has underscored the unfolding refugee crisis on Australia's doorstep, the apparent failure of Canberra's present policy of active discouragement and the increasing desperation of civilians fleeing the war zones and tyrannical regimes in the Middle East.

Officials in Jakarta report that at least 24 of those who drowned had already been granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which means they were judged to have had a well-founded fear of persecution if they returned to their country of origin.

But, as these people found out, being granted refugee status guarantees nothing. Many genuine refugees are languishing in Indonesian camps because no country is willing to take them.

"The result is very depressing and very frustrating," says Raymond Hall, the regional representative for the UNHCR in Jakarta. "Some of them have been waiting for 18 months for a country to accept them and none wants them. Australia has refused to accept any of these cases. The pity is that other governments would be better motivated if Australia accepted some of them."

The shaky international system for processing refugees is on the brink of collapse due to the new waves of refugees fleeing Afghanistan because of the bombings, acute food shortages and the excesses of an increasingly desperate Taliban regime. There are not enough people and resources to process the thousands who have fled and few countries are prepared to take them. The UNHCR's resources are stretched to breaking point.

Australia, which believes it has already accepted more than its fair share of asylum seekers, is working hard to discourage the refugees heading here. It recently moved its assessment team from Pakistan to Bangkok, making it harder for people to seek asylum.

Globally, the numbers of people seeking sanctuary are astounding, and help explain why even those granted refugee status are willing to jump queues and risk death on unsafe boats. There are 12 million refugees in the world, more than two million are Afghans, and only about 110,000 resettlement positions. The pressure to queue jump is enormous.

AFGHAN asylum seekers who make it to Pakistan - and they are arriving each week in their hundreds, sometimes thousands - know the odds of being resettled in a country such as Australia shorten enormously if they can make it to Indonesia. The odds shorten again if they can get on a boat to Australia. Up to 5000 mainly Afghans and Iraqis are estimated to be in Indonesia seeking passage to Australia.

Many of the asylum seekers have real concerns for their safety if they were to be returned to their countries of origin. Others are opportunistic.

The situation is confused by the fact that a number left Afghanistan and Iraq years ago and lived as refugees in Pakistan and Iran before deciding to seek a better life in Australia. Officials claim some are Pakistanis passing themselves off as Afghans.

Sorting them is a painstaking process for the UNHCR.

In Indonesia, more than 460 mainly Iraqis and Afghans have been identified by the UNHCR as genuine refugees. Sixty-one have been accepted for resettlement, but only 31 have left for other countries. In May, Australia agreed to take 40 of this group but, wanting to discourage queue jumping, stipulated that they had to have direct family here.

A further 1500 people are being assessed by the UNHCR's six-member staff.

UNHCR spokesman Raymond Hall says refugees are risking trips on fishing boats because they believe the World Trade Centre attacks have made countries more reluctant to accept certain refugees. At the same time, he says, they believe the asylum seekers now being processed in Nauru will eventually make it to Australia, leaving little room for anyone else under resettlement programs.

In addition, New Zealand has rescinded its offer to take Indonesianbased refugees after accepting 140 from the Norwegian freighter, Tampa.

Sick of waiting in despair, asylum seekers in Indonesia pay people smugglers thousands of dollars for the voyage to Australia, hoping to land on Ashmore Reef or Christmas Island. Take the case of Iraqi student Raid Al Saadi Sharmookh, 19, who arrived in Indonesia more than two years ago. He was another of the 21 people who escaped the doomed Indonesian vessel.

His application for refugee status was approved last year. He has two sisters in their 20s and a cousin in her early 30s living legally in Sydney and wants desperately to join them.

"Why did I get on that boat last week? I have been here a long time living in poor condition," Sharmookh told The Age. "I cannot get any answer from the United Nations or Australia. They say I will be allowed to go another country. But why doesn't Australia take me? Why? I will try again to get on a boat. I have no other way. If I try again and die, then the United Nations and Australia will be responsible."

Hall says Australia has been reluctant to accept any asylum seekers from Indonesia on the grounds that such action would simply attract more people. But, he adds, "I think if we were to get other countries, other governments, to take an interest in providing solutions for these refugees, Australia has to be part of an international burden-sharing, solutionssharing arrangement."

Australia's hardline stance does not seem to be working. Since the crisis with the Tampa, which was boarded on August 29 by Special Air Services troops to prevent it landing on Christmas Island, the Howard Government has refused to allow illegal asylum seekers into Australia, shipping them off to Pacific islands to be processed. But this has not stopped the flow - more than 1500 people have tried to reach Australia since then.

Yesterday, a joint statement by churches in the Pacific warned against the islands "becoming a dumping ground for the benefit of industrialised nations".

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Mekere Morauta yesterday confirmed he had sacked his Foreign Minister, John Pundari, and Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Evoa Lalatute, for leaking Australia's request to take extra asylum seekers. Earlier, a letter written by Pundari to Australia's High Commissioner in Port Moresby warned of a "possible social backlash" on the island of Manus - already accommodating 225 boat people - if more people were shipped there.

Manus Island, in the Admiralty Island group, 350 kilometres north of Port Moresby and just two degrees south of the equator, sits in the most isolated and least visited province of Papua New Guinea. Occupied for a time by the Japanese during World War II, it later was a substantial US naval and air base. Today, it has a population of about 33,000 and its main industries are fishing and cocoa growing, though its clear waters, marine life and islets attract scuba divers from around the world.

Under a $1million-plus deal brokered by Australia, about 225 mainly Iraqi asylum seekers were flown there this week by Australian Hercules aircraft. The boat they were on was intercepted by the Australian Navy near Christmas Island on October 7. Famously, Australia claimed some of the asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard.

There was trouble almost as soon as the group arrived at the naval patrol boat base at Lombrum, according to reports in the Post Courier newspaper in Papua New Guinea. The asylum seekers were angry they had not been taken to Australia and wanted to be dealt with by the UNHCR rather than the International Organisation for Migration.

The newspaper reported the group smashed lights and chased interpreters from the detention centre. One man reportedly tried to grab the electric fixtures of a shattered fluorescent light before being subdued. Threats were made to break down fences. Between 20 and 30 of the asylum seekers went on a hunger strike.

Village leaders expressed concern about the pressure the policy was putting on provincial governments and the uncertainty and animosity it created among inhabitants. "We cannot go on alluding to Australia and its preference of how this issue should be addressed," Moses Taian, a Manus leader, told the PNG Independent. "We must act as a sovereign country - have our own policy."

Asylum seekers are expected to stay at the former patrol boat base for up to six months while being assessed. But then what? No one knows how many will be deemed refugees or what will happen to those who are.

Australia is also negotiating with Fiji, Palau and Kirabati to accept asylum seekers. Fiji's Foreign Minister Kaliopate Tavola revealed yesterday that the country could host up to 1000 Afghans.

And it is still unclear what will happen after the UNHCR has assessed the asylum seekers. Those who do not qualify as refugees will be repatriated at Australia's expense. But where to? Afghanistan? The UNHCR will probably deem some to be refugees. But then what? And for how long can Australia rely on tiny impoverished islands to act as processing camps?

According to William Maley, the chairman of the Refugee Council of Australia, the people sent to Nauru and Manus Island will come to Australia eventually.

"Everyone ... who is found to be a refugee will almost certainly end up coming to Australia," he says. "Of the people who are determined not to be refugees, it is anybody's guess. Nauruans won't want them. They'll end up having to come to Australia, I suspect."

Maley, an associate professor of politics at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, believes the Tampa incident and the refusal to allow the asylum seekers entry has been a colossal waste of money, undertaken for manifestly electoral reasons. "We'll end up in a situation which would be identical to that which would have arisen had people simply been allowed to land and been processed in Australia, with the exception it cost about five times more to process people in Nauru than it would in Australia," he says.

Steve Ingram, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, said those in holding camps in the Pacific who were found not to be refugees would be repatriated. The government would look at refugees who had close family links here.

"A number of other countries indicated when the situation (the Tampa crisis) was on that they would look at resettlement. We wait with interest to see whether that offer remains open," he says.

And if it doesn't? "That's something we will have to look at at the time because we don't know the numbers," he says. "PNG and Nauru will not be asked to share the burden. We were expected to share the burden with other countries around the world, in other hot spots like the Middle East, the Balkans and Africa. We are saying to them, `it is now time to show your colors in this part of the world. We've helped you in other parts of the world so let's see what you can do in Asia. Given that this is happening in our region we expect you to help us as we have helped you'."

Australia accepts 12,000 people each year under its humanitarian program, which consists of an offshore resettlement component and an onshore protection system for those already here. The government has allocated 4000 offshore places to UNHCR-mandated refugees in need of resettlement and 5000 places for onshore claimants. Onshore claimants then have first priority for the remaining 3000 places. This year there are an extra 1600 places, held over from previous years' allocations.

Jakarta is planning to hold an international conference, possibly next month, on ways to better handle the crisis, which it sees as the responsibility of all countries involved, including the asylum seekers' countries of origin and destination countries like Australia. In an extraordinary display, both the Coalition and Labor claimed credit for Indonesia's announcement.

Maley says the conference is a small step forward and was probably called as a face-saving exercise in the wake of the boat capsize and claims by survivors that corrupt Indonesian police had pointed guns at those trying to get off the boat before its departed. He believes the interests of countries of origin and first destination, such as Iran and Pakistan, are likely to clash with the transit countries which, in turn, would not like Australia's fortress approach.

"I wouldn't be surprised if at a conference like that one found the regional states actually ganging up against Australia. Australia should not delude itself there's going to be a majority of states that favor Australia's approach," he says.

Maley points out that some European countries smaller than Australia have accepted 10 times the number of asylum seekers. Last year, the Netherlands (with 15.7 million people) had 43,890 applications, and Belgium, with a population of 10.1 million, had 42,690 applications. "Virtually everyone" was accepted and the countries did not "squawk" about it, he says. "Countries like that tend to take a very dim view of Australia. There is absolutely no doubt that Australia has suffered ... an enormous amount of damage because of the Tampa affair."

David Elias and Bill Birnbauer are Age senior reporters. Lindsay Murdoch is The Age Indonesia correspondent.

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