The 'losmen' of lost dreams

Saturday, July 23, 2005
Duncan Graham, Contributor, Surabaya
Jakarta Post

East Java's Pasir Putih is the frazzled Surabayans' weekend escape spot, a four-hour drive east from smog city.

Despite its name, the beach is more gray than white, but the sea is shallow and safe. It is ideal for parents who want to relax and let the kids have a splash, a sail and a bit of freedom.

Freedom? That's something a small group of foreigners at Pasir Putih long for as they gaze across the Madura Sea and wonder if they will ever leave their involuntary home and reluctant host.

Decision time is looming. Their claims for refugee status have been rejected and officials say their only option is repatriation (see sidebar).

But still they hope.

These are the almost forgotten folk, 27 Iraqis, five Afghans and three Iranians who fled their homelands but failed in their bid to reach Australia.

They are all former customers of people-smugglers whose Indonesian boats were turned back by the Australian Navy.

They were then caught by Indonesian police and transferred to Pasir Putih where they pray against the odds for a home in the West.

"I cannot return to Afghanistan, it's too dangerous," said Juma Khan Nasiri, 25, a veteran of three attempts to reach Australia. The first, in 2001, cost him US$4,000. It lasted only a day before the boat's engines broke down an hour out of Surabaya. There were about 300 people on board.

Trip two cost US$500 and for this fee he spent 15 days in the ocean, again with a failed engine. "We just drifted," he told The Jakarta Post. "I don't know where we went, but I think that God helps us." This time the boat had around 150 passengers.

They eventually landed on Sumba island, East Nusa Tenggara province, and were sent to Jakarta after sheltering in a mosque.

Undaunted, Nasiri and 130 other hopefuls tried again in 2002. He said he now had only US$200. That just happened to be enough for a spot on an unnamed boat that set out from Mataram in Lombok.

They were never to glimpse their promised land. Instead, the boat was boarded off Ashmore Reef (in the Timor Sea) by Australian navy sailors.

Nasiri alleged he and five other young men were handcuffed when they protested against not being allowed to proceed, and that some passengers had threatened to sink the boat.

Nasiri said he was a Muslim from a persecuted minority sect. He is a personable young man with an extraordinary grasp of English, despite claiming no university education, formal learning or close involvement with native speakers.

"I just wanted to talk to the people who were responsible for making the rules that said we could not land in Australia," he said. "I have an uncle in Adelaide (South Australia) and I will do any work. Some Afghan families have already been granted refugee status." He said the boat's engine was repaired, the people were fed and after five days found themselves closer to Indonesia than Australia. They beached near Kupang.

The asylum seekers occupy an old, six-unit losmen overlooking the beach. Each unit has its own toilet. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) pays for their food and accommodation. This arrangement allegedly causes resentment amongst some Indonesians.

There are no obvious guards and the foreigners are free to mix with locals and tourists at the beach. The children cannot go to school, an issue concerning the adults.

Some units have television sets and other electrical appliances bought by sympathetic visitors, including relatives who have become citizens of Western nations.

Firas Noubi, 29, was on the same boat as Nasiri, but says he was not handcuffed.

With six other relatives, all members of the minority Mandaean religion, Noubi fled Iraq for Australia where his mother now lives on a permanent resident visa.

The Mandaeans come from the Iraq-Iran border and follow the teachings of John the Baptist but say they are not Christian. They claim persecution by Muslims and the state.

Unlike Nasiri, who said he enjoyed good relations with local Indonesians, Noubi said there were some tensions and alleged that he had already been assaulted.

Noubi's Iraqi neighbors are the Munir family led by aunt Rajaa Yousif, 55. They are Catholics and include three feisty young women who have become fluent in Indonesian. The family has three relatives in Germany, one in Holland and claim there are none left in Iraq.

They said they were prepared to go anywhere. They also alleged they had received no help from Indonesian Catholics.

Noubi and his family said they paid US$1,000 each for their place on the boat from Mataram. "We thought the Australians would be sympathetic toward us when they saw the old people and the children," he said. "The sailors simply replied that they had to follow their government's new rules and could not accept refugees from the sea.

"We cannot go back to Iraq; it's too dangerous. We want to go anywhere where we will be treated as people."

Noubi, a goldsmith who has had a university education in his homeland, said he did not want people to feel sorry for the failed asylum seekers, but to understand their plight.

"We are fed and sheltered but we are not allowed to work," he said. "We've been here more than three years and we don't know what the future holds. We have nothing to do. We feel like animals, not humans.

"Why can't anyone find a solution? The problem is not that great."


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