Video: Angry asylum seekers demand money back from people smugglers

News Limited Network
September 12, 2013 7:30AM

EVERY day, for the last 20 days, the smugglers have promised the asylum seekers they will be travelling on a boat bound for Christmas Island the very next evening. And every time the next evening arrives, the same news comes through. Not tonight. Tomorrow.

For two groups of Iranian asylum seekers, whom the smugglers had confined to two villas in the West Java city of Cisarua, in order to be ready to travel at a moment's notice, they'd had enough.

Last Friday night, about 30 of them joined forces and visited the villa of their people smuggler, a Syrian man known as Abu Vasim.

When they arrived at the villa, Vasim was not there. But four of his agents were.

The asylum seekers were well aware that change is afoot in Australia, and expected a change of government on Saturday. They wanted to be in Christmas Island before that happened.

The confrontation occurred inside the smugglers' compound, in a high-walled villa off a small cramped laneway packed with homes. Despite the argument raging for at least 30 minutes, no police arrived.

Everyone around here is scared, or in the smugglers' pockets.

Eventually Vasim, the head of this smuggler group, who resides in Indonesia, and his second-in-charge, Morteza, an Iraqi who had lived in Iran but who has also set up in Indonesia, turned up to deal with the situation.

The smugglers and asylum seekers adjourned to a villa next door to talk. People were calmed and promises were made; a boat would be available three nights from now. They just had to be patient.

Ever since the people smugglers reopened for business after Kevin Rudd ended John Howard's Pacific Solution in 2008, and abolished temporary protection visas, asylum seekers have been highly visible in Indonesia. And wherever asylum seekers can be found, smugglers and their agents are never far away.

With more than 30,000 exiting Indonesia by boat since 2008, dwarfing the problems of Howard's Tampa years, Indonesian authorities have relegated smugglers and asylum seekers as a low priority.

Chris Sheehan, head of the Australian Federal Police in Jakarta, who describes the smugglers more as businessman crooks than Mr Bigs, says the smugglers have been significantly disrupted in recent times, due to more dedicated efforts by Indonesia.

But the reality is that most arrests come only after a boat sinks, or people are ripped off, and passengers are angry enough to inform on their smugglers.

The AFP, which currently has 10 officers on dedicated people-smuggling watch, cannot conduct its own operations on Indonesian territory. asylum-seekers

Abu Vasim's lieutenant, known as Morteza (in long-sleeved lilac shirt). It is understood that Vasim has oversight of the operation, and Morteza's key role is to find boats to take people to Christmas Island. Picture: Supplied

In order to instigate investigations, the AFP must hand any information it receives to its Indonesian counterparts on its small and under-resourced People Smuggling Desk, who do not have a strong record of busting smugglers in the scheming stage.

Even if they did, they have a deeper problem. The smugglers pay for protection, both to local police and to neighbours in the compounds where the smugglers and passengers are gathered.

The corruption starts with from immigration authorities in countries such as Pakistan and Iran, where they take money to let the asylum seekers through, all down the line to the seas off Java, where boats set sail for Australia, apparently unnoticed by the authorities.

Kevin Rudd's PNG Solution, announced on July 19, has had real effect in Cisarua, with smugglers now struggling to find passengers for the journeys. So, at this time, the smugglers have another enemy: their competitors, who are also trying to move people to Australia.

Asylum seekers told us their smugglers were less worried about the authorities than they were about other smugglers, who would tip-off authorities on imminent departures and steal the passengers for themselves.

Eventually, the asylum-seekers departed from Vasim's villa, their anger turned to defeat. They had no choice but to accept the smugglers' assurances. The smugglers retained control of their money, and their hopes.

Vasim, Morteza and the agents retired back to the villa next door, and sat for hours, talking over their options. Presumably, they had two: find a boat, fast, or disappear with the asylum-seekers' money.

A week on, the asylum-seekers were still waiting, and Australia had a new prime minister who has vowed to stop the boats.

GREENS senator Christine Milne claims the "overwhelming majority" of Australians support more compassion for asylum seekers. The statement suggests Milne does not get out enough.

Australians have become hardened on the topic. When boat-bound asylum seekers in Java ask, as they often will, whether Australia will welcome them, to tell give them an unambiguous "yes" would not be truthful.

No new group of migrants, unauthorised or otherwise, has ever found automatic welcome in Australia. And these people, who are mostly Muslim, will find it even harder in a country that no longer worries so much about race, but certainly kicks out against the infiltration of people they suspect of importing intolerant doctrine.

Still, it is not possible to encounter the asylum seekers without feeling their desperation. No matter the public sentiment or politics in Australia, most are in genuine trouble in their home countries. Even if they have money, as many of the Iranians do, it does not mean they do not have their valid reasons.

We met one young man, Mitt, an influential stock analyst in Iran who, along with being unable to have relationship with his Christian girlfriend, could no longer publish his online opinions on stock movements. He said he had been arrested for publishing advice to buy stock that did not suit the Iranian government.

And then there are the outsiders living in Iran's Persian world. "We are Arabs," says Abdollah Sakhravi. "The government says Arabs are terrorists. We cannot work. They kept my brother in prison one week, handcuffed to the wall. When he came home, he's not normal. They catch my neighbour and kill him in the street. They say they will kill me."

But the real reason Abdollah decided to take his family to Australia - where his relatives had fled two years earlier - was the government had notified his 21-year-old son, Mostafa, that he'd be expected to leave for Syria to join the fighting there.

There's the case of Hasti, aged eight, who was on the smugglers' boat that sank off Java on July 23, killing 20. Hasti's mother did not recover from diabetic shock after being pulled from the sea and died after five days.

We met Hasti in the early hours of the night following the sinking. Her mother had been taken to hospital and Hasti had been dumped on the streets of Cisarua, in the middle of the night, with a group of survivors. The confrontation happened in a villa in a crowded laneway in Cisarua, in West Java. Picture: Supplied

The confrontation happened in a villa in a crowded laneway in Cisarua, in West Java. Picture: Supplied

In the original story, I named the girl as Fatemah, due to a misunderstanding (when I asked her name, the group said "Fatemah", meaning she was Fatemah's daughter).

Hasti has not been told her mother is dead. She is in the care of an Iranian couple. The man has said he swam Hasti to shore after the sinking (though we met a second Iranian who claimed he had rescued Hasti in the sea).

Fatemah and her husband had divorced in Iran. She had gone to court to demand that he pay paternity, but the court instead ruled, according to Iranian law, that custody in the event of divorce automatically resided with the father.

Fatemah was ordered to hand Hasti to her ex-husband, even though he didn't want her.

Fatemah acquired two passports and headed for Australia. Attempts have recently been made to assist Hasti in being fast-tracked so she can enter Australia as a refugee orphan, where she would become part of a settled Iranian family, but there have been problems.

The permission of the father is still needed to verify Hasti is unwanted by him back in Iran, but attempts to locate this man have been blockaded.

The Iranian family who is caring for Hasti have won accommodation support in Jakarta through the International Organisation for Migration, namely so they can give Hasti a temporary home.

We heard a conversation where one Iranian man accused Hasti's carers of refusing to divulge the father's information, which might assist her coming to Australia, because they were using Hasti as their meal ticket. These same carers refused to allow News Corp Australia to visit Hasti.

It is understood Fatemah, whose body was unclaimed, has been buried in a pauper's grave in Java. Hasti has relatives in Australia, but when Mitt, the stockbroker, rang to tell them Hasti was orphaned, they hung up on him"

So often, the desperation of people taking the boats to Australia brings out their worst self-survival instincts.

Mitt, who was on the same sunken boat as Hasti, had no life jacket and told of being punched away by other asylum-seekers as he tried to swim to people wearing life jackets (eventually he was able to share space with a group of five hanging onto a truck inner tube).

Another Iranian man showed us the scratch marks where a Sri Lankan woman had fended him off from sharing her life jacket. But none of this compares to the survival instincts of the smugglers.

As is well understood, smugglers send people to sea on worthless boats. But one thing is not so well known, and it is drummed into boat captains: once you leave, don't come back.

A returning boat is bad news. Local villagers and authorities might claim not to have seen it depart, but they cannot ignore a boat when it washes back to shore.

Asylum-seekers are a headache. Police have complained to News Corp that when they have been ordered to intercept truckloads of asylum-seekers heading for the coast, or staged rescues, they have had to pay for their food and water out of their own pockets, because they have no funding.

At the time of the July 23 sinking, News Corp was on the scene and heard tales that the captain, a Sri Lankan man, had sabotaged the boat. These stories were strongly ratified on our more recent visit to Java. money

Survivors, mostly Sri Lankan and Iranians, told how when they set off there was a manageable leak in the vessel, which passengers were able to control by taking shifts pressing a sheet of plastic against the hull. After a few hours, the leaking got worse and the boat began to falter.

The passengers demanded, with threats, that the captain turn back to Java.

Meanwhile, passengers were phoning their smugglers, Abu Yunes and Nasim from Iran, and Sri Lankan Sinniah "Syams" Vamadevan, to send rescue boats.

One man who was on the boat, Mohammad Sultani, 27, from Isfahan in Iran, said Yunes was brutal. "When the group ring him saying, 'We are dying', he say, 'This is the way of the illegals. You are in the hands of God.'

"We think he (ordered the captain to) sink the boat because he was scared (of the returning boat). He prefer everyone dead."

According to numerous accounts from passengers, they saw two boats standing off, in close proximity, as panic set in. One was a small Indonesian fishing boat, the other a larger vessel that, according to various accounts, was either a police boat, a navy boat, or a tug.

Witnesses saw the captain disappear below deck, possibly to open the seacock or smash the existing hole wider, after which they say he immediately dove in and swam for the smaller fishing boat and was taken away. The asylum vessel then split apart and sank in a matter of 20 seconds.

Passengers believe the smugglers ordered the Sri Lankan boat captain to scuttle the vessel. They suspect the captain, who has since disappeared, was rescued in order to ensure his silence.

The smugglers, as well, didn't want to deal with passengers demanding refunds for the dodgy boat, or going to the authorities (survivors informed on the smugglers regardless, leading to the arrests).

People say they started swimming for the bigger boat, calling out, but it retreated into the distance, declining to help. Passengers claim to have seen uniformed Indonesians observing them struggling in the water, ignoring their pleas.

The identity and reason for the bigger boat's presence remains a mystery. But the possibilities are ugly.

This was one of the bigger asylum shipments to leave Indonesian waters for some time, carrying a confirmed 210 people, but probably more. Adults paid around $5000 each for the journey.

Discounting the 30 or so children who travelled for free, this was, roughly, a US$900,000 human shipment.

The boat had set off in the daylight, its departure visible from the nearby fishing village of Cidaun. This was a public event, requiring the collaboration of local villagers to transport the passengers in smaller boats to the bigger waiting vessel, and the compliance of the authorities not to interfere.

The area where the boat sunk off Java is the closest direct line to Christmas Island, just 400km away. It has been the biggest departure point since numbers started slowly building in 2008, and then began rushing from 2010.

It is not conceivable that even the poorly funded Indonesian maritime authorities have been oblivious to what has been happening on this small stretch of coast, for five years. And it is hard to imagine they would not have demanded their share from this boatload.

One possibility is that this boat earned its cut by escorting the smuggler's vessel out of Indonesian waters. But when it started sinking, and they realised people were dying, it suddenly got too hard.

OUTSIDE the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in central Jakarta, there is a daily line up of asylum seekers trying to get appointments to register claims as refugees. Afghan Hazaras, Iranians, Iraqis and sometimes Sri Lankans and Somalis mill in the alleyway off Sabang Street, sharing tales of frustration.

They all want the same document, the UNHCR Certificate, which acknowledges their refugee claims as having been accepted. The certificate achieves two things: it puts them in the queue for formal resettlement to a first-world country such as Australia, and it allows them to show police that they have papers.

But after the initial introduction appointment, getting a further appointment can drag on for months, or years. The UNHCR has been swamped, ever since Rudd abolished the Pacific Solution in 2008.

Blaming Rudd for 30,000 boat people since 2008 may seem like pure media politics, but there is no other explanation.

No one calamitous event has contributed to the rush of the past five years, though the targeting of Shia Hararas within Afghanistan and in Quetta, Pakistan, where Sunni Muslims exploded two huge bombs earlier this year, remains unrelenting.

Nonetheless, the situation for minorities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq is dire, because the entire region is poisonous. And that is before even the Syrians have even started to arrive in Indonesia, which will likely become Tony Abbott's problem. ASYLUM SPECIAL

Afghan asylum seeker Ali Reza Bahrami at his temporary house in Cisarua, Bogor, West Java. Picture: Ardiles Rante

In the five-year period between Rudd's decommissioning of Manus and Nauru, and then the reopening of the Pacific Solution in order to assist his moribund hopes for re-election, hundreds of smugglers and their agents have set up shop in Indonesia to profit from the desperate.

There are three types of asylum-seekers: those who come down and seek rapid passage from the smugglers, travelling in a matter of days or weeks; those who register with the UNHCR in the hope of formal resettlement, but lose hope and take boats; and those who stick it out for resettlement, never planning to catch boats, but positioning themselves as close to Australia as possible.

In Cisarua, Afghan woman Nasreen weeps. Her husband took a boat two years ago and is now living in Sydney. She, her two daughters and son don't want to risk their lives on a boat. She had a refugee status interview with the UNHCR in Jakarta last October. She has heard nothing since.

Mohamud Ali Hilowle, 28, a Somali from Mogadishu, has been in Jakarta since May 4, 2007, awaiting formal recognition of his UNHCR status. He's sitting in the street outside the UNHCR, waiting for word. He says he's waited long enough.

"People don't want to take boats," he says. "But there is no process here. It is better to die in the sea than be a refugee with nothing."


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