Tropical Transit Lounge

David O'Shea
22 August 2001

In the past week, over 400 boat people have reached Australia from Indonesia. Just tonight, another 350 are reported to have landed on Christmas Island. And the Australian Government believes hundreds more are on their way. But the refugees don`t get here without help - people smugglers are making a fortune. Refugees fly into Indonesia, mainly from the Middle East and Afghanistan. Then they make their way to ports around Java, Bali and the Indonesian islands to the east. From there, the Australian territories of Ashmore Reef and Christmas Island are just a few hours by boat. But as David O’Shea reports, Australia is throwing its might and money into preventing the asylum seekers from ever leaving Indonesia.

REPORTER: David O`Shea

When boats full of refugees land on Australia`s shores, we hear a lot about it. When they wash up on these shores, however, it`s a different story altogether. A year and a half ago, a terrifying journey that started on Bali ended not where it was supposed to end - in Australia, but here, on another Indonesian island - Sumbawa.

MOHAMMED RAHIM, REFUGEE: Our ship`s captain was not someone who knew the sea. He lost the way. We had 12 days of storms, rain, thunder, a sick sister-in-law. There were 100 to 105, perhaps 100 people on board.

After their Australia-bound boat broke down just off shore, the mainly Afghani passengers were taken to the provincial capital, Sumbawa Besar, and detained by the Indonesian police. Mohammed Rahim has being housed here ever since, with his brother, their wives and six children in two rooms of a local hotel. His youngest son was born on the boat in a storm, as the waves crashed over t hem. Although the family is now safe, they feel trapped here, in a remote outpost of a country that offers them no future.

MOHAMMED RAHIM: Yesterday, my wife, who didn`t have a life in Afghanistan, after problems on the sea and one and a half years here, was saying she was going to kill herself. It is better to die than to live. We stopped her. We said "God is merciful."

The scratches on her face are self-inflicted - evidence of her deep frustration and despair.

MRS RAHIM: It`s not good here. It`s been two years, we`re tired of it.

PHILIP RUDDOCK, IMMIGRATION MINISTER: What people are trying to do is to travel to those countries where they would like to be a refugee, rather than staying where they are, where they are safe and secure. I mean these people are not in any danger. They are safe and secure in Indonesia, they are being supported, but what they are saying is "We demand to be resettled in a country wher e we believe there will better support available to us financially, and in health terms, than perhaps is available in Indonesia."

Middle Eastern asylum seekers are now incarcerated across Indonesia. In Lombok, a group of 281 mainly Iraqis have been held under guard for three months. This former hotel is now their detention centre. They are still waiting to see the UN High Commission for Refugees, the UNHCR, which is responsible for assessing their asylum claims.

WOMAN: No, no, there is no-one from the United Nations come to see us. It is now four months at least. There is no United Nations. No-one cares about us. They just don`t want us. They just put us in the hands of the police. Most of us - our men - without husbands, our husbands are in Australia. What could they do? Stay without husbands?

In fact, there is a comprehensive Australian strategy that keeps these women from joining their husbands. The Australian Government is paying the Indonesian authorities to catch the boat people, and paying the International Organisation for Migration to feed and house them. Indonesia is fast becoming Australia`s offshore detention centre. Police headquarters in Lombok now has an offi ce dedicated to illegal immigration. Another boat has just been caught on their patch, in Bima, East Sumbawa.

GHIRI PARAWIJAYA, LOMBOK POLICE INTELLIGENCE: In Bima, 77 people, 34 had passports, the rest didn`t have passports. So if the passports are genuine, they`ll be released because there is not enough evidence.

At first glance, it seems extraordinary that in a country with over one million internally displaced people, energy and resources have been dedicated to helping Australia defend itself against a few thousand boat people. But then, Australia is footing the bill.

GHIRI PARAWIJAYA: There is an agreement, a Memorandum of Understanding, an MOU, between the Indonesian and Australian governments. Our police officers are trained in Australia because Australia is asking us to capture people - immigrants that pass through Indonesia.

REPORTER: So they give you training or funding or what, to help you do that?

GHIRI PARAWIJAYA: Yes, in the form of computers, binoculars, and other equipment.

REPORTER: What is the capital investment in this strategy for Australia, and are we getting our money`s worth?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: The investment is relatively small and modest in comparison to what it costs us if we have to hold larger and larger numbers of people in detention in Australia, processing their claims and arranging for their ultimate removal if they are not asylum seekers, or genuine asylum seekers or refugees.

REPORTER: So, how much would it be that we are providing the Indonesian police for example?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: I can`t give you those figures, and I don`t think it would be appropriate to.

REPORTER: Is it hundreds of thousands or is it millions?

PHILIP RUDDOCK: The amounts could run into several millions dollars for interruption activities within the region, but those amounts of money are quite modest when you look at the cost of say 1,500 people - that would probably be in the order of $80 million to $90 million if they`d come to Australia.

It`s a cosy arrangement. The cash-strapped Indonesian police force gets much-needed external funding, and Australia gets willing contractors to help stop the boats before they leave. The only ones not happy with the set-up are the asylum seekers themselves, who resent being treated like criminals and are escorted by up to three policemen wherever they go.

MIDDLE EASTERN REFUGEE SPEAKING TO POLICEMEN: It`s the same here as with Saddam Hussein.

INDONESIAN POLICEMAN: If we don`t get together, if anything happens to you, I`m the one who gets hung. If you get hit by a car, have an accident, I`m the one who cops it. That`s why we protect you.

One local journalist thinks they should be thankful they`re not in Australia.

INDONESIAN JOURNALIST: We`re too good. In Australia, they`d go straight to jail.

But outside the UNHCR office in Jakarta, no-one feels the slightest bit grateful. When asylum seekers arrive in Australia by boat, we call them `queue jumpers` and accuse them of stealing places from good refugees who wait their turn. But these Iraqi refugees have reached the front of the queue and found that it gets them nowhere. The UNHCR has decided they are genuine refugees in ne ed of resettlement. Almost two years on, they`re still waiting for somewhere to go. Today, they`ve gathered to register their protest.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Let`s get it right. The fact that they have been found to be a refugee and are in Indonesia where they are safe, does not give them a priority place. There is no need or particular hurry for them to be resettled. I am not prepared to accept that they ought to be holding the sword of Damocles held over us and saying, "You haven`t done it soon enough."

The UNHCR has written to 11 countries asking them to find places for the refugees who now come under their protection in Indonesia. So far, Finland, Sweden, and the United States of America have all agreed to help, but after six months, there`s still no reply from Australia.

KEMALA ANGRAINI AHWIL, UNHCR JAKARTA: I believe our office in Canberra is also doing as hard as they can, but still the resettlement countries have their own prerogative.

REPORTER: And in this case it seems Australia is deciding to stall as much as it can by not replying to your requests for information on their stance?

KEMALA ANGRAINI: I don`t know about that.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: I don`t know what letter you are speaking about.

REPORTER: Well, they say they have been waiting for six months for a response to a series of letters they sent to 11 countries, asking for clarification on whether those countries would accept refugees that they have deemed to be legitimate refugees, and to this date, they are waiting for responses from eight countries, of which one is Australia. I was just wondering what...

PHILIP RUDDOCK: I would say Australia`s position has been made clear.

REPORTER: Not the the UNHCR, they haven`t.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I don`t know about the UNHCR in Jakarta.

REPORTER: These Iraqis have been given the status of refugees and have been waiting for 18 months in Jakarta for resettlement. Will Australia be accepting these?


Many of these refugees are now beginning to regret going through the proper channels. In this Jakarta hotel, Hamed, who is Palestinian, says he is not about to make the same mistake as his Iraqi friends.

REPORTER: So, what do you plan to do?

HAMED, REFUGEE: I`m planning to take a boat journey to Australia.

REPORTER: And how do you go about organising that?

HAMED, REFUGEE: Well, I have connections through some people here. I have friends who left last week and they have already arrived in Australia on Christmas Island.

He has already paid the smuggler and is now waiting for the call. Doing things the official way doesn`t interest him in the slightest.

HAMED, REFUGEE: They have been waiting here for 2-3 years, I`d rather just go there and maybe stay in a camp for a year, and then end up going out of the camp and starting a new life.

I invited Hamed to watch a video that describes what he and his Iraqi friends can expect if they jump the queue.

VIDEO: The detention centres are often thousands of kilometres from major cities and located in remote areas, sometimes desert.

Australia`s Immigration Department produced this video to try and convince would-be boat people that -

VIDEO: It is not worth the risk.

So is Australia`s scare campaign having the desired effect?

HAMED, REFUGEE: We are not scared of the desert or the mountains or the camps. We had all that under the Iraqi regime. We can survive that easily. If they drop us in the Pacific, we`ll survive.

SECOND REFUGEE: Did he bring the film to scare us? It doesn`t scare us.

HAMED: We have two options. It`s either the UN or go by boat to Australia. We`re starting to lose hope in the UN. The UN has only one word - wait. PHILIP RUDDOCK: Why do they have a greater priority than those who have been languishing in refugee camps elsewhere? Where is the claim for priority, except that they had money and were enough free to travel to Indonesia. Every decision yo u take that rewards people with an outcome that is tantamount to a migration outcome invites more people to do the same.

This well-known Jakarta landmark is the epicentre of the people smuggling trade in Indonesia. A place to meet and share information, and a place to kill time waiting for your boat to leave. Tonight, as Hamed discovers, it`s quieter than usual.

HAMED: Last week, this was like a street in Baghdad. There was about 350 people in this place, they all left to be ready to go to Australia on boats. But if you wait one more week, there will be more coming in here to this place and the same process all over. It`s an ongoing process.

As we now know, those 300-odd people -last week eating cheeseburgers in Jakarta - are now in detention in Australia. They left for Australia from the west coast of Java. They were lucky to go undetected because as `Dateline` has discovered, Australian Federal Police are active in these remote waters. The owner of this deep-sea fishing boat told us that in an undercover operation, thr ee police, armed with Hawaiian shirts and cases of beer, rented his boat to investigate people-smuggling activities in the area. They were surveying the coast of south Sumatra. From here, it`s less than 500km to Christmas Island.

Back in Sumbawa, the Afghani families appear to have settled in. The children attend a local school and have learned to speak Indonesian. But Indonesia will never be more than a temporary home, a stopover on the way to what they imagine will be a better life.

MOHAMMED YACOB, REFUGEE: Every human being wants nothing but the best for his children. But unfortunately, for one and a half years we`ve been in custody in this hotel. I can`t answer their simpler questions, let alone meet their demands. They keep asking "When will we be free, Dad? Where will we be going? Where is our home, Dad". And I have no answers.

Knowing the reception that awaits boat people in Australia, one can`t help but wonder whether this family at least, would be better off staying where they are.

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