Waves of grief
Lindsay Murdoch
Sydney Morning Herald

Desperation not dollars is the hard currency of the asylum seekers who keep trying, no matter what.
Lindsay Murdoch reports.

THE asylum seekers knew the trip on a rotting and leaking Indonesian fishing boat would be perilous. They had heard the horror stories of refugee boats sinking in rough seas, everyone on board drowning.

They knew the seas between Java and Australia's remote Christmas Island, their destination, could quickly blow up to become among the world's roughest.

And they knew that Egyptian-born Abu Quassey, the head of a Jakarta-based people-smuggling syndicate, to whom they paid more than $2.5 million, was a gun-toting criminal who had official protection in Jakarta.

"I had no choice," says 53-year-old Iraqi woman Montaha Sam Adam.

"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 are all living in Sydney, having migrated there legally from Iraq where they say they were persecuted because they are non-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 that is rented by Iraqi asylum seekers.

"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 were able to pay a passing fisherman to take them in his small boat from the doomed 19-metre one 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 only two pumps had already failed and only 60 to 70 of them had life jackets that were too small for most of them anyway.

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 that has focused attention on the plight of more than 5,000 asylum seekers in Indonesia who are trying to reach Australia.

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

People granted this status are supposed to be guaranteed resettlement in a third country such as Australia. So why take such great risk?

Nineteen-year-old Iraqi student Raid Al Saadi Sharmookh arrived in Indonesia more than two years ago. 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 live in Australia.

"Why did I get on that boat last week? I have been here a long time living in poor condition," Sharmookh says, in broken English.

"I cannot get any answer from the United Nations or Australia. They say I will be allowed to go to 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."

The UNHCR says that since January last year 2,111 boat people in Indonesia had applied for refugee status. About one third of them had been successful. But of these only 18 had been accepted by a third country 15 by the United States, two by Norway and one by Germany.

Officials in Jakarta say Australia and other Western countries have avoided taking refugees from Indonesia because they don't want arrival in the country to be seen as a quick way to be resettled.

Only after the shocking stories of 45 survivors of last week's disaster were published this week did the Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, announce that Australia would take 40 refugees from Indonesia if they had family links inAustralia.

Raymond Hall, the UNHCR's Jakarta-based representative, says Australia has been reluctant to accept any asylum seekers from Indonesia on the understandable grounds that this would simply attract more people to come.

But Hall says that "nonetheless, I think if we're 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 solutions-sharing arrangement".

Hall told the ABC that Australia has been grappling with how to solve the problem of refugees stranded in Indonesia. "We need solutions for them and I think this tragedy that has occurred is in part due, at least where the recognised refugees are concerned, to a lack of those solutions."

Indonesia is concerned about having thousands of illegal immigrants staying for years in the country, often stirring unrest in communities where they live. Brawls have sometimes erupted between asylum seekers and local youths over cultural differences.

Several Middle Eastern men waiting for resettlement after being granted refugee status are key members of one of six major people-smuggling syndicates operating out of Jakarta, police sources say.

And authorities in Jakarta fear a flood of new arrivals following the US-led attacks in Afghanistan.

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' country of origin and destination countries like Australia.

Indonesia's laws dealing with people smuggling are vague, making it difficult for police to arrest people smugglers and stop the departure of boats.

Tragedies like the death of the 350 asylum seekers will not stop the boats coming, refugee officials say. Every one of the survivors had lost close family or friends. But they met in a group this week and declared they will try to get on other boats, no matter how dangerous it is, unless they are resettled in Australia, where many have relatives.

Amal Hassan, a 40-year-old Iraqi woman whose aunt and niece drowned, says that most of the other survivors have no country to go back to.

She and her family were chased out of Iraq by Saddam's security personnel.

"I never looked like this before," she says, lifting her headscarf to reveal tousled hair. "I worked in Iraq's central bank. I always wore nice clothes. I want to resume a life like that in Australia. My husband is in Melbourne."

Amal Hassan survived more than 15 hours in the water because her 19-year-old son Almjib pulled a lifejacket off a body and gave it to her.

"A lot of people are dead. But we are alive," she says.

"Can you ask Australia to help us?"

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