Bane of the boat people

The Los Angeles Times
Jan 4, 2002

By day, Amal Hasan dreams of Australia--a utopia where someday she will join her husband, rebuild her life and reside in safety.

But at night when she closes her eyes, her dream turns to horror and she relives the tragedy of Oct. 19, when an overloaded refugee boat taking her to Australia sank off the island of Java, killing hundreds.

Over and over, she sees her fellow refugees struggling underwater, unable to reach the surface. She sees women and children clinging to scraps of wood in the heavy seas and slipping under in exhaustion. She watches as others drift away, never to reappear.

Hasan, a 43-year-old refugee from Iraq, was one of 45 survivors. She said she took a life jacket from a dead woman and then hung on to the corpse for 20 hours to help herself stay afloat until a passing boat rescued her.

Now, stranded in Indonesia, she clings to the hope that she can reach her promised land.

"Everybody on the ship had a dream, a beautiful dream about Australia, but everybody died," she said. "For us, Australia means paradise."

Australia has become the ultimate destination for Asia's new influx of boat people: thousands of refugees, most of whom have fled dictatorial regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and other Islamic countries to seek safety Down Under.

Most are Muslims who claim to be victims of persecution and request political asylum. They are willing to risk their lives for the chance to live in a Western-style democracy that offers freedom of worship and respect for human rights. They believe that Australia's distance from their homelands will make it harder for their despotic rulers to hunt them down. They picture Australia as a free and open society with employment and educational opportunities.

Australia has done all it can to stop the flow of asylum seekers-- blockading their boats, locking up every refugee who reaches land and denying full rights to those granted asylum.

But they keep coming, believing that the hardships that lie ahead are less severe than those they left behind.

The determination is apparent among survivors of the October sinking. Many said they would cross the sea again on the same kind of old wooden vessel.

"Our goal was Australia--die or Australia," said Ali Hamid Ahmad, 28, an Iraqi electrician who survived by holding on to a piece of wood but lost a cousin. "We have nothing else to fear now. If there is a boat, we will go."

In Australia, some relatives of the victims charge that the government's refugee policies contributed to the deaths.

Australia tightened its rules in October 1999 so that refugees granted asylum after that point can receive only temporary visas. Unlike earlier arrivals, they cannot bring their families to join them in Australia for at least three years, and perhaps never. If they leave Australia, they are not allowed to return.

The prospect of not seeing their families for many years prompted those who had stayed behind to attempt the same journey. Many passengers of the doomed boat were women and children traveling to join husbands and fathers who had received asylum. Of the 373 who drowned, 147 were children and 141 were women.

Ali Mehdi Sobie, who said he was tortured by the Iraqi government and who was granted asylum by Australia, is a sad and angry man. He last saw his wife and daughters in September 1999. They died trying to reach him. Sitting on the floor of a friend's living room in a Sydney suburb, he holds a year-old photo of his girls and fights to hold back the tears.

"Under this temporary visa, you don't have the right to bring your family and you don't have the right to visit them," he said. "They didn't have a chance of seeing me for three years. I told them not to come this way. They told me they couldn't wait forever."

The number of asylum seekers heading to Australia began spiking in the late 1990s. But the government's tolerance for Islamic asylum seekers quickly evaporated, and it began enacting tough policies to deter future arrivals.

For now, the government has nearly succeeded in thwarting the asylum seekers with a combination of naval patrols to stop their boats and harsher rules for the few who manage to slip through the blockade.

The path that the refugees follow from Afghanistan and the Middle East is well traveled. Fleeing the repressive governments of their homelands, they first reach safety in neighboring countries such as Pakistan or Iran. Those with enough money stay only a few days. Others languish in refugee camps for years.

Their next destination is Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. A predominantly Muslim country, Malaysia grants open entry to citizens of other Islamic countries.

From there, some fly directly to Sydney but most go by boat to Indonesia, a vast archipelago whose porous borders are easy to cross illegally. Once in Indonesia, the refugees entrust their lives to avaricious smugglers who pack them aboard leaky wooden boats at $1,000 a head for the perilous 300-mile journey to northern Australia.

Usually, the boats aim for Ashmore Reef or Christmas Island, outlying Australian islands that are closer to Indonesia than they are to the Australian mainland.

About 4,000 refugees reached Australia last year, and about 3,000 were granted asylum. Those numbers are far less than in European countries but enough to worry the government. With a population of 19 million, Australia is fearful of being overrun by a wave of immigrants and has tried to make the continent appear as unfriendly to refugees as possible.

"The answer is to make sure these people don't come into this part of the world in the first place," Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said.

Founded as a British penal colony in 1788, Australia has practiced racial discrimination during much of its existence.

In the 1800s, the indigenous Aborigines were gunned down and pushed off the land much like Native Americans in the United States. During the 1950s, the government took Aborigine children away from their families and placed them in boarding schools, creating what is known as the "Stolen Generation."

During the first half of the 1900s, the government maintained a "White Australia" policy that allowed entry only to immigrants of European descent.

In recent decades, growing numbers of immigrants from Asia and other parts of the world have been accepted, but whites still make up the overwhelming majority.

In August, Australia's hard-line refugee policy caught the world's attention when the Norwegian cargo ship Tampa rescued more than 430 refugees, most of them Iraqis and Afghans, from their sinking boat in the Indian Ocean. When the Tampa tried to deliver them to their destination of Christmas Island, the Australian government barred the ship from docking.

Prime Minister John Howard was determined to prevent the refugees from setting foot on the island so that they could not claim asylum.

In a show of force, he ordered Australian commandos to board the Norwegian vessel. Days later, the refugees were loaded onto an Australian warship and transported to remote island nations in the Pacific, including Nauru, where most of them remain.

The government has agreed to pay $15 million to Nauru and Papua New Guinea to set up camps and process the refugees, the first step in what Australia calls its "Pacific Solution." The Australian navy is now intercepting boatloads of refugees and transporting them to the two nations.

Howard's refugee policy was condemned internationally but applauded at home. In November, he won reelection to a third term.

Human rights groups warn that Howard's attempt to pull up the drawbridge could undermine a 5-decade-old United Nations treaty aimed at protecting refugees fleeing persecution. As a party to the convention, Australia must grant asylum to refugees who arrive in the country and have well-founded fears of persecution in their homelands.

Even in the mid-1990s, when asylum seekers were arriving in small numbers, Australia began taking a harsh approach.

Unlike other signatories to the 1951 agreement, Australia detains all applicants for asylum who arrive without a visa or proper documentation until their cases are decided.

Many destroy their documents en route to Australia in the belief that it will make it harder for the government to deport them.

Refugees who are denied asylum but come from countries such as Iraq that don't have diplomatic relations with Australia cannot be deported. They are locked up indefinitely.

Australia built six detention centers to handle the flow. Critics have begun calling the system the "Australian gulag."

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock says the refugees are free to leave detention any time--as long as they also leave the country. But some remain in the camps for years, afraid of imprisonment or execution if they return home.

After the Tampa incident and the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, Australia tightened its rules for asylum seekers even more.

Howard has suggested that the asylum seekers might include terrorists, heightening public fears of the newcomers. None, however, have been charged with terrorist activity.

The government hurriedly enacted a law barring refugees from receiving permanent residence if they did not apply before Sept. 27. Under the law, any refugee who now lands at Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef is ineligible for asylum. With the long journey to the mainland and navy ships searching for refugee boats, few asylum seekers are likely to reach Australia by sea.

The refugees say they are fleeing the same conditions that prompted the United States and its allies to seek the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Afghanistan's Taliban regime. But Australia casts the refugees as conniving gate-crashers trying to take advantage of the generosity of its people.

"What we are experiencing here is what most developed countries are experiencing, and that is the asylum system is being used abusively by people who are free enough to travel and have the money to get there," Ruddock said in an interview in Sydney.

Ruddock said there are 12 million refugees worldwide and no country can take them all. The solution, he said, is to make their countries safe so they can go home. Australia has committed 1,550 troops to the war in Afghanistan and is considering sending peacekeeping troops.

Last week, Ruddock announced that Australia would no longer process applications from Afghan asylum seekers now that the Taliban has been ousted and a transitional government has taken power in Kabul.

Australia calls the boat people "queue jumpers" who take precious slots away from people who would otherwise be admitted under a program to accept 12,000 needy refugees a year from camps around the world, including the Middle East.

But to refugees escaping their homelands, it is unclear where "the queue" begins. In most countries, Australian embassies and consulates do not accept asylum applications. Applying through the U.N. for refugee status can be hopelessly time consuming.

About two dozen people who died on the ill-fated boat in October had already received U.N. refugee status but had grown tired of waiting for a country to accept them. Some had waited two years, U.N. officials said.

Ali Mehdi Sobie's story is typical of refugees granted asylum in Australia.

He said he was arrested and tortured by the Iraqi government after he delivered food and weapons to rebels during an unsuccessful 1991 uprising against Hussein that was encouraged by the United States.

During interrogation, he said, he was tied by his feet from a ceiling fan and spun around in circles, which injured his hip. He now walks with a limp and says he needs corrective surgery.

After his release, he and his family fled to Iran. There the government, burdened by a growing refugee population, kept them from getting jobs and prohibited their children from attending school. Sobie decided to seek asylum in Australia.

After flying to Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, he spent six days traveling by boat from the Indonesian island of Lombok to Ashmore Reef. "There was always a danger the boat would sink," he said. "Most of the time we were praying."

Like most refugees, he arrived in Australia with high expectations that were quickly dashed with his detention. But after 11 months, he was given a temporary protection visa and released.

Over his protests, his wife, Zaynab, 31, and their daughters Donia, 14, Marwa, 12, and Hijran, 10, left Iran to join him.

They traveled to Cisarua, a town south of Jakarta, where refugees congregate, and met smugglers who agreed to take them to Australia.

The smugglers took them in buses with darkened windows and, in the early hours of Oct. 19, arrived at the harbor where their boat waited.

Once the refugees saw the small, decrepit boat, some hesitated to board. But police who were aiding the smugglers forced them to get on, survivors said. There were only a few dozen life jackets for the hundreds of passengers.

Within hours, the water pump and engine failed and the boat began taking on water. Soon after, the vessel capsized, trapping many of the refugees underwater.

"My eyes were still open in the water, and I saw everybody dying, men, women and children," Amal Hasan said.

The boat sank about 3 p.m. Many passengers grabbed pieces of wood that came loose from the wreck but couldn't hang on through the long night. A fishing boat spotted the survivors late the next morning. Among them were a 12-year-old girl who lost her entire family and a pregnant woman who lost her husband and both her children.

Indonesian authorities arrested the alleged leader of the smuggling ring, an Egyptian using a Turkish passport, but they say Indonesia has no law against human trafficking. He faces prosecution for entering the country illegally.

The sinking aroused the sympathy of distant countries and speeded up the process of resettlement for the survivors. So far, 42 have received U.N. refugee status. Canada, Norway, Finland and Switzerland are considering taking some. Australia has accepted one, the 12-year- old, who has an uncle in Sydney.

With the death of his wife and daughters, Sobie is one refugee who has gotten the message that asylum seekers are not welcome in Australia.

"If I knew the Australian government would treat me and my family this way, I would have preferred to stay in Iraq and be executed by Saddam Hussein rather than be executed this way," he said. "By killing my family, they are killing me."

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