Far Eastern Economic Review
issue dated December 20, 2001
[as posted on Dow Jones Newswires]
Refugees Wait In Limbo While In Indonesia
Images and text by Ashley Gilbertson in Jakarta, Kupang, Mataram and Surabaya
"AT 3 P.M. the water started coming onto the boat. I didn't know why. I jumped overboard with my family." Fazi Kasm is sitting in a bare room in the Indonesian hill town of Bogor. On the bed next to him is his 12-year-old son, Amar Fazi. The boy is all that Kasm has left in the world.
The Iraqi left his own country earlier this year, hoping to slip into Australia. On October 19, the boat that Kasm and his family were travelling on began sinking. Forty-four refugees survived. About 350 died.
"I watched my mother drown," Kasm says quietly. "I watched my father drown. My four children, my wife, my brother's family drowned and I could do nothing. My son was tearing at my shirt to stay afloat. We stayed on a small piece of wood for 22 hours in the sea until a small boat came and rescued us." Kasm and his son were brought to land at Tanjung Priok, the main port of Jakarta, by a fishing boat. There they joined almost 1,500 other mainly Afghan and Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers currently known to the Indonesian authorities.
For such refugees Indonesia represents a sort of limbo -- a staging post on their interrupted journey to Australia. Most have taken a tortuous route to get here. Often they are flown first into Kuala Lumpur, from where they are smuggled by speedboat to Sumatra. Once in Indonesia, they hide out waiting for a boat to Australia.
Kasm and his family were on just such a boat when it sank. They were particularly unfortunate. Usually, the boats are intercepted by the Australian navy or else are forced to turn around due to engine trouble or leaks. Often, the illegal passengers are arrested when they re-enter Indonesia, and eventually the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or the International Organization for Migration will be called in to aid them.
"The Indonesian government does not have a system in place," explains the UNHCR's Tony Garcia-Carranza. "That's why we are doing it." That's hardly surprising: Indonesia is struggling to cope with hundreds of thousands of its own people displaced in recent years.
Relocation is a lengthy process and refugees learn quickly to lower their expectations. "We do not have any hope they will send us to another country," says Jamila Ali, an asylum seeker from Afghanistan stuck in Indonesia for the past two months. "They provide food and some services, but we don't think they will help."
In desperation, many of the asylum seekers will try again and again to enter Australia. The alternative is to hang on in Indonesia, waiting for the UNHCR to find a country willing to accept them. "Altogether it can be at least a year," says Garcia-Carranza. "If they are accepted, that is."
While they wait, the refugees live in tiny hostel rooms and vacant government halls. Out of a $50 monthly allowance, they must must pay for their rent and food. It's not much, but it's often more than the earnings of the poorest Indonesians. Locals speak bitterly about the refugees: Passing a group of Iraqis on the street, a taxi driver mutters, "Arab. No good."
In the small room that's become her home, Jamila Ali sits in front of a couple of washed shirts hanging from the window. She's alone because her husband has been in Australia for the past two and a half years.
"We want to get a ship back to Australia," she says. "In Afghanistan it is impossible to live."