Indonesia a nightmare for refugees
Ian Timberlake
W a s h i n g t o n   T i m e s
16 November 2001

Afghans, Iraqis find unwelcome home as others decide their fate

KUPANG, Indonesia - For hundreds of Afghans and Iraqis, the road to freedom ends in frustration here, at an Indonesian police college with dirty mattresses and overflowing toilets.

They paid thousands of dollars to criminal syndicates who, they say, brought them to Indonesia, where they were loaded secretly onto wooden fishing boats for a perilous journey to nearby Australia. But in a new get-tough policy, the Australians have used warships to intercept the increasing flow of refugee boats and send them back to Indonesian territory.

Here, the asylum seekers face up to two years of uncertainty as their fate is decided by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and foreign governments.

"We have no country, and no voice and no future," Taraf Darali, 38, a former judge in Afghanistan, told a reporter at the police college.

More than 400 asylum seekers from two separate boats have been living in emergency accommodations here since Indonesian police moved them from the nearby island of Rota, where they landed in late October after the Australians intercepted them.

"They didn't want to come here. We had to force them," said Brig. Gen. Jacki Uly, 48, the police chief in East Nusa Tenggara province, a parched group of islands that are the poorest in Indonesia.

Rota is a 10-hour sail from Australia's Ashmore Reef, and about 1,000 miles southeast of Jakarta.

"Why did the Australian people bring us to Indonesia?" a young Afghan in a white T-shirt asked a reporter. The impact of the war in Afghanistan on the refugee flow to Indonesia is still not clear, but Raymond Hall of the UNHCR in Jakarta said the number of Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers has escalated sharply since 1999, when only nine persons asked for asylum.

"We were on the brink of closing this office down," said Mr. Hall, 52. Many of the Afghans and Iraqis already are living outside their home countries when they seek the help of smugglers, Mr. Hall said. Often, the Afghans had fled to Pakistan, while many Iraqis had gone to Iran.

Refugee workers say the typical smuggler's route takes the asylum seekers by plane to Malaysia, which they enter legally without visas before boarding a smuggler's boat to nearby Sumatra, in Indonesia. From there, they are passed from smuggler to smuggler and may make their final departure toward Australia from various ports in southern Sumatra, South Sulawesi, or Java.

Last year, more than 1,000 refugee hopefuls who failed to make the crossing approached Mr. Hall's office. By the end of this year, he expects to have dealt with more than 1,500 applicants, almost all of whom are from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The numbers fall far short of the flow to Europe, where the Netherlands alone received about 80,000 asylum seekers - many of them Afghans - last year. As European nations have moved to erect more barriers to illegal immigration and to tighten penalties for human smuggling, Mr. Hall suspects that some of the flow has been redirected toward Indonesia, where poor law enforcement has allowed for a relatively easy transit to Australia.

"Previously, most of them used to go straight on to Australia, which is where they want to get to, but now as Australia toughens its interdiction arrangements, it's become increasingly difficult for them to get to Australia, so they get stuck in Indonesia," said Mr. Hall. Australia began intercepting refugee boats in August, but despite the clampdown, desperate asylum seekers have continued to brave the rough seas.

It can be a fatal decision. About 350 asylum seekers, many of them Iraqis, died in October when their boat sank south of Indonesia's main island of Java on its way to the Australian territory of Christmas Island.

Even when boats survive the voyage, not all of the passengers do. Hussein Dad, 28, a former baker from Afghanistan, said his newborn baby died because of the heat as he and the other refugees now in Kupang tried to reach Ashmore Reef.

Another child, a 3-year-old Iraqi girl named Valin, was burned severely on both legs as refugees tried to cook with a small stove aboard their vessel, they said. From her feet to her thighs, Valin's legs are a mass of sores.

On the same blue and white wooden fishing boat - now under Indonesian police guard at Kupang's harbor - a child was born to Bibi Fatima, an Afghan refugee. She and the baby joined about 100 other asylum seekers in a quiet protest at the police college on Nov. 7. They sat on the hot asphalt outside their dormitories and unfurled three banners complaining about their treatment by Australia and international refugee agencies.

The refugees receive water and three rice-based meals a day from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a nongovernmental group, but they say the quality of the food is poor.

They also don't like their accommodations, normally a dormitory for police recruits. The lucky refugees get dirty mattresses on jerry- built wooden bunks. Others sleep on the floor.

Kupang is short of water, only a little of which trickles into the long trough that Iraqi refugees use for bathing. The nearby floor- level toilets were filled with human waste.

Hardship and pain are nothing new for some of these people who tell of abuse under Afghanistan's ruling Taliban. But they never expected to end up here.

"I was in a Taliban jail for two years," said Hanif Walyzada, 33, his eyes red with disease. Another member of his family, a young mother named Mumtaz, sat on her bunk staring out the window, her 18-month-old daughter, Arzu, sitting beside her. Mumtaz said Arzu's father was a driver for Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Masood and, like Mr. Masood, was murdered by the Taliban.

"We want peace," she said simply, as a tear slid from her right eye. Life is unlikely to get much better anytime soon for Mumtaz and the other asylum seekers, even if they eventually are accepted as refugees by the UNHCR.

Mr. Hall said that of the roughly 2,000 applicants considered by the Jakarta office this year and last, about 500 so far have been given refugee status. Of these 500, fewer than 80 so far have been accepted by a host country. The United States has taken about 27, Sweden 29 and Canada about 14, Mr. Hall said.

Many of the others, their cases still under consideration, live in tiny Jakarta rooms they rent with a monthly allowance of about $50 provided by the UNHCR. They spend their days loitering at a McDonald's restaurant near the UNHCR and IOM offices, far from the families they left behind and the future they had imagined. "We didn't think about this life, a life alone," said Hussein Almasshat, 27, an Iraqi carpenter who has spent the past year in Indonesia.


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