Australia hopes for more Indonesian action on asylum seekers
3 September 2001
KERRY O'BRIEN: Right now of course, it remains a matter of guesswork as to when we'll see the next boatload of asylum seekers set sail from Indonesia.
And it's also complete conjecture as to how many would-be refugees are determined to head for Australia in the weeks ahead.
But the Australian Government is preparing to take advantage of the international spotlight on Indonesia's role in this messy affair, sending three senior ministers to Jakarta on Wednesday to try to win support for a much tougher crackdown on the people-smuggling racket.
It won't be easy to stamp out -- it's a lucrative trade for the smugglers, with no shortage of demand.
Mark Bowling in Western Java and Murray McLaughlin in Lombok have filed this special report.
MARK BOWLING: This is a tranquil hill-top resort in West Java.
Postcard scenes are what tourists come to see, but it's also a haven for those described as Indonesia's unwanted.
RAYMOND HALL, UNHCR: We've got 500 recognised refugees here, and we've got about 1,500 people on our books at various stages of processing.
MARK BOWLING: These Iraqis are playing a waiting game.
Some are already recognised refugees, they are ready to start a new life if only a third country, like Australia, would accept them.
They've been waiting here for up to two years.
With a husband and four children living in this tiny space, it's hardly surprising that Wahidn Musawey is looking for a way out.
Her family fled Iraq and persecution under Saddam Hussein.
She receives a small monthly allowance from the UN but not enough.
She can't even send her children to school.
This is a heart-breaking existence.
Even so, the prospect of paying a smuggler to go to Australia could bring more grief.
WAHIDN MUSAWEY (TRANSLATION): I heard some stories from my friends when they take a boat to Australia.
They told me some children died in the boat.
No, I don't want to go to Australia by boat.
MARK BOWLING: For months, groups of Middle Eastern asylum seekers have demanded the UN High Commissioner for Refugees find a solution -- find countries which will take them.
but when that doesn't happen, more and more turn to the people-smugglers.
For between $5,000-$10,000 they're promised safe passage to Australia.
The deals are often made here in Central Jakarta.
For the shadowy heads of smuggling operations, each boatload can yield millions of dollars.
It's a business more lucrative than drugs.
RAYMOND HALL: We're aware of cases where people, groups of people that we are trying to interview and make our services available to, disappear during the night and where we hear reports that they have headed for the nearest port where ships or a boat is waiting to take them onwards on their journey.
It's not our job -- it should be somebody's job and basically it's a police job.
It's not our job to track and engage in hot pursuit after those people.
MARK BOWLING: These Afghanis have already been stung by smugglers.
They have the papers to show they too, are UN-recognised refugees.
SAJJAH HUSSEIN HAIDER, AFGHAN ASYLUM SEEKER: It's a branch of UNHCR.
I don't know -- they give us this.
And this paper, they are from UNHCR.
MARK BOWLING: Like many Afghani asylum seekers here, these men's journey began with a flight from Pakistan to Malaysia, where Muslims have the right of entry without visas.
They made contact with smuggling agents and were soon on a short boat trip to Indonesia, complete with fake passports and visas.
After handing over thousands of dollars each to another illegal syndicate, the men were promised a charter flight to Australia, but first a boat trip which ended in disaster.
SAJJAH HUSSEIN HAIDER: I do not want to go anymore to sea, to water.
It's too dangerous.
We have tried this one.
We was 13 days in water and we do not know when, after one second, or two seconds, we will die.
MARK BOWLING: Rescued from a sinking boat, they ended up on remote Sumbawa Island.
They were jailed for six months, then sent back to live in this Jakarta slum.
Amazingly, they are now so frustrated and desperate that they're willing to join another boat to Australia.
SAJJAH HUSSEIN HAIDER: They are killing us slowly, by step by step because we do not have food here.
We do not have energy here.
Like this UNHCR is doing with us like this, expect to die, or to arrive.
In place of me, everyone will think like this.
MARK BOWLING: From Java's west coast port of Merak it's a 2-day journey by wooden fishing boat to Christmas Island.
It's from here that the latest load of asylum seekers were sent to sea in a leaky boat.
For smugglers to operate smoothly, harbour masters and police must surely be in on the act.
RAYMOND HALL: To get to the bottom of that you'd have to have a proper police investigation, and so I am not really able to say.
But as in many other countries, there is unfortunately, the possibility of collusion between smugglers and certain less-than-honest people in local positions.
MARK BOWLING: The people trade in Indonesia may slow down because of news of what happened to the 'Tampa', but the trade is unlikely to stop.
That's because it's a lucrative business for the smugglers.
They care little about the boat people or what happens to them once they've been sent out to sea.
MARK BOWLING: Members of the new Indonesian Parliament are talking tough about the issue, promising a crackdown, even promising closer cooperation with Australian Federal Police to break up the smuggling syndicates.
YASRIL BAHRARUDDIN, HEAD MIGRATION, DEFENCE & SECURITY COMM : Since this accident of the illegal migrant, I believe and I can assure you at least from myself, I will give more attention and watch carefully about this issue and will shout to the government if they don't process this according to our law.
MARK BOWLING: Indonesia's police are overstretched and suspect.
A crackdown on a problem where the demand is endless and the profits are big, is going to be easier said than done, as Murray McLaughlin discovered when chasing what happened to one boatload of would-be asylum seekers supposedly interned on the island of Lombok.
MURRAY McLAUGHLAN: On Lombok, four hours by ferry east of Bali, Indonesian police are on alert.
Their focus is on the island's exit points.
Here, at the major port near the provincial capital Mataram, buses waiting to drive onto departing ferries warrant close attention.
Passengers of Middle Eastern appearance are of special interest.
And well might police be targeting human traffic out of Lombok.
Right now, they have a major embarrassment to explain away.
The hundreds of tourist who pour onto this holiday haven every day, would be blithely unaware of the trouble for the authorities which has been brewing here since 19 June.
That day, an Indonesian boat, bound for Australia out of Jakarta, broke down on the neighbouring island of Bima.
It was carrying 251 asylum seekers from Middle Eastern countries like Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.
LONG LAI KONG, INTERNATIONAL ORGANISATION FOR MIGRATION: They're all at the mercy of the organiser, meaning the international Mafia.
They painted a picture, a good future, a dream, a false hope for them to go to Australia.
MURRAY McLAUGHLAN: Their dream has evaporated.
After being contained in informal custody on Bima Island for 3.5 weeks, the 251 asylum seekers were brought to Lombok.
They were accommodated in a guest house in the main city of Mataram, supposedly guarded around the clock by police.
JOHN CAMPBELL, UNHCR: The accommodation is good, I've been round it.
It's, well, adequate.
The food is basic.
The medical support is good.
The security provided by the police is helpful.
When the police have to restrain people and bring them back, they use minimum force to do so.
The situation here is much better than I've seen in many refugee communities throughout the world.
But it still doesn't answer their problems.
They want to go to Australia and they want to go now.
MURRAY McLAUGHLAN: Security at the Mataram guest house is clearly relaxed.
While the 7:30 Report filmed outside at the weekend, residents were able to wander onto the street outside, presumably still under the eye of their police warders.
But apparently so desperate have they been, to get on with their journey to Australia, that of the 251 asylum seekers registered here two months ago, over 200 have since escaped.
MUHAMMAD FAROUK, LOMBOK POLICE CHIEF: First we try to take full security.
But then the problem come, came.
And then we try to treat them humanly.
MURRAY McLAUGHLAN: The price of relaxing full security has been paid by immediate neighbours of the guesthouse come detention centre.
With constant trouble over the fence, they say they now live in fear.
Like on Saturday morning, when some of the young men tried to escape but were reported to police by locals.
This man was reporting as a bricklayer in an adjacent yard and he was threatened because the escapees thought he was a police informer.
LOMBOK BRICKLAYER (TRANSLATION): The police went and got him from over there.
And when he came back he hit me.
So I just ran in here.
And then he threatened me like this.
JOHN CAMPBELL: The Iraqis, they become very impatient.
They're noisy, they shout, they have disputes with the police.
The police have had to use their weapon, but fire in the air on a couple of occasions this week.
But I will say that, I must say the police have been remarkably restrained.
IRAQI MAN: I want to go Australia, you understand.
I want to go Australia.
MURRAY McLAUGHLAN: This young Iraqi man was among the unsuccessful escapees on Saturday.
He and the fast diminishing number in detention here, remain determined to renew their journey to Australia.
IRAQI MAN: Why Australia?
Because Australia big country and the Australian like Iraqi and don't hurt people.
You look Australia -- big country.
JOHN CAMPBELL: Those that do speak English have said to me, you know, we're not asking to go, we demand to go.
We demand to go to Australia, and we have to try and get the message through to them that it is not their right.
They've got to go through the processes, until they're determined to be refugees, we can't even go a stage further than that.
MURRAY McLAUGHLAN: The UNHCR last week found these people wholly uncooperative.
They refused to declare basic information, even to support their claim to be refugees.
But their recalcitrance is not swaying the Lombok police chief.
He remains determined to maintain a softly softly approach even if it means further escapes.
MUHAMMAD FAROUK: If we try to face them by force, I think I will get a lot of trouble.
Sometimes not only Indonesian but international organisation will blame me, so we try to play harmoniously and as good as possible, as well as possible.