The Ones That Didn’t Make It: Australia-Bound Refugees Languish in Indonesia

Australia's new policy of turning back the boats has left asylum seekers in a desperate, deadening limbo

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Firdia Lisnawati / AP

Iranian asylum seekers who were caught in Indonesian waters while sailing to Australia, sit on a boat, at Benoa port in Bali, Indonesia, May 12, 2013

Had the engine not cut out just beyond Indonesian waters, Ali Reza and 60 others aboard the packed boat that launched its way south three months ago might now be safely housed on Australian territory. That goal died with the engine. Instead, he, his wife and child sit idle in a guesthouse in Cisarua, south of Jakarta.

“We were picked up by an Indonesian patrol and brought back,” explains Reza, who fled Iran with his family 16 months ago. Now down $20,000 — the fee his family paid for the failed trip — he is penniless and survives on monthly handouts from the aid group that runs the guesthouse.

To miss the boat has rarely carried more severe repercussions for the thousands of asylum seekers that arrive in Indonesia each year. Australia’s new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, rode to office on the back of a promise that the vessels carrying refugees to Australia would be halted. Caught out are the people sharing living quarters with Ali — a muddle of Palestinians, Syrians, Pakistanis and Iraqis, a who’s who of nationalities destabilized by war. Many of them would qualify for legitimate refugee claims, but with the door to Australia slammed shut their interminable wait will continue — unless they succumb to the solicitations of people smugglers, who urge the world’s transient populations to gamble their savings on a flimsy promise of sanctuary.

“Nobody can go to Australia now,” says Yousef, a businessman who left Syria in late 2010, prior to the breakout of war, and knows he cannot return. His teenage children, also in Cisarua, haven’t been to school for three years. Ten months of calls to the U.N.’s refugee agency and he is yet to be assigned to a country. “I’m waiting now. I’m not sure which country they’ll send us to. I just don’t know because I’ve had no news.”

(MORE: Australia’s Message to Asylum Seekers: Go Away)

Australia signed the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, and is therefore obligated to hear claims from asylum seekers, even if they departed foreign shores illegally and arrived in Australia illegally. Abbott’s promise, however, is to turn back the boats before they become Canberra’s responsibility. In a statement released by Indonesia’s foreign ministry on 26 September, Major Andy Apriyanto, a senior officer with the Maritime Security Coordinating Board, sounded a warning about the turn-back proposal, one of several to anger Jakarta. “Casualties may happen with this, and if they are in open sea … it’s too risky with boats commonly in poor condition and over capacity.”

Abbott will arrive in Indonesia on Monday and attempt to hammer out a consensus with President Susilo Bambang Yodhoyono, but recent heated exchanges may complicate that. “The current pointed nature of public debate makes cooperation between Indonesia and Australia more difficult, because it becomes more controversial,“ says Dr Dave McRae, from the Lowy Institute for International Policy think tank. This is particularly the case for issues like police cooperation, “which have been happening quietly in some form for years, albeit not producing the policy outcomes that the Australian government wants.”

This is not the first time an anti-immigration ticket has helped decide Australia’s top seat — John Howard capitalized on it to win the election in 2001. Roslyn Richardson, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, believes a long held cultural dislike of “the other“ in Australia has helped drive support for Abbott’s so-called Operation Sovereign Borders, which includes plans to create asylum seeker “terminals” on Indonesian soil, to which Australia-bound boats will be returned. Political parties in Jakarta have accused the Abbott administration of undermining Indonesian sovereignty.

(MORE: Australia’s Costly Asylum Seeker Policy Contributes to Nation’s Deficit Woes)

In Australia, the policy has effectively criminalized asylum seekers and made them the focus of a wider discourse about state security, tinged with nationalist overtones. “The fact that our most recent boat arrivals are predominantly Muslim means that they have unfortunately become linked at times to Australia’s counter terrorism agenda,” says Richardson.

Nearly $1 billion has been slated for this operation. Shielding itself from criticism, the government says the measure will pay dividends in the long run as asylum seeker numbers dwindle and Australians reclaim a sense of security. Yet Richardson thinks otherwise. “We appear to be highly vulnerable to the hysteria whipped up over this issue. Why else do we agree to our government plunging billions of dollars into policies that are based on very little evidence?” Canberra’s recent break with a policy of reporting to media every asylum seeker boat that arrives suggests a nervousness within the government about how effective the operation will be.

On a noticeboard in the Cisarua guesthouse hang pixelated images of an Iraqi and an Afghan national, the latest to have been jailed on charges of people smuggling. It’s a multi-billion dollar international operation, and vultures from across the world come here to prey on the clientele. Along the decades-old refugee passage to Australia that opened with the first wave of fleeing Vietnamese in the 1970s, business may begin to slow, but the global movement of people that long predates sovereign borders won’t. Those who voted for Abbott’s expensive plan will want to see results, but the thousands of miles of ocean and coastline make it something of an insurmountable task for law enforcement teams.

Critics have rounded on the irony of Australia’s zero tolerance attitude, given the make up of its own population (Abbott arrived in 1960 aged three. His first ancestor to set foot there came only 50 years before). The White Australia policy, enacted in its first form in 1901 to discourage non-Europeans from migrating to Australia, is held up as an example of the country’s backward past. To the Cisarua refugees, Abbott’s get-tough policy is an example of a backward-looking present.

MORE: Living in Limbo — The Asylum Problem

96 comments
boots
boots

oh get off your high horse you idiotic uninformed writer. Did you know that you can buy a plane ticket for even a big family for less than $20k? The only reason many of these people jump on the rickety old boats is because:

1. They want to jump the queue

2. They want a handout

If their boat sinks it's their own damn fault. Perhaps the children are blameless, but the parents certainly aren't


See this article:

http://news.ninemsn.com.au/national/2013/10/05/09/45/refugees-asked-for-breast-enlargements-and-botox-doctor-says

They ask for these kinds of crap all the time. There are even video evidence of these, where these so called refugees ask for PS3s and XBOXes. Many of them actually have family living in Australia, family who could've supported them in getting a regular work visa. Oh wait that's right their families have been here for years and are still asking for handouts from the govt because they refuse to work, while at the same time trying to turn Australia into an islamic state since apparently they hate Australian culture. If you refuse to learn English and you hate Australian culture and have no respect for Australian laws then you can get lost. We have plenty of good, decent, skilled migrants from India and China and Singapore and other countries who want to come here to be one of us and we're better off spending our money helping those good people adjust to life in Australia than giving handouts to the people who actually hate us.

I have many friends who actually did come here as a refugee, mostly from Vietnam and other Asian countries, but also some from the middle east and eastern Europe. And all of them agree with me that based on what we've seen from the things these people say, to the way they behave, the large majority of them are NOT genuine refugees. Just because your country is in conflict does not automatically classify you as a refugee. A refugee is:

"A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster."

Being a fighter from the losing side of a civil war does not make you a refugee. Because had the situation been different, you would've been happily torturing and killing your enemies in your origin country. If you were the one committing the atrocities and doing the persecuting then all of a sudden the tide changes and you're on the losing end, that does not make you a refugee.

Elva Zhang
Elva Zhang

So sad - but having lived in Australia for 12 years, I know this so-called policy does not represent the majority of the Australians I know... But yes, its a governmental policy...

Brett Jaye
Brett Jaye

Actually close to 15,000 boat arrivals in the first six months of this year I think Kylie.

Raymond Sims
Raymond Sims

Why do they have to go to Australia ? there are plenty of other countries in the area. Why is there no pressure for countries in the area to take them in ?

RobinPeter
RobinPeter

Call it lack of empathy, but which host country would ever like to give refuge to people who would later turn out to be hostile to their host and impose their cultures and beliefs on their host country instead of repaying or even showing gratitude?

Jeffrey Wu
Jeffrey Wu

A country has the sovereign right to police its borders against both intruders and deserters. The fact that the Australian Navy is holding fire against intruders is testimony to the restraint with which Australia is conducting itself. If, one day, Australia does become impatient and orders a response with deadly force, it is perfectly understandable, legal and justifiable.

Alexandra Geneve
Alexandra Geneve

I don't know the answer but I do know there is a lot of fear-mongering that is not often supported by fact.

Tara St Wood
Tara St Wood

like i said it's a hard choice. we only see the negative aspects but if i put myself in there shoes, i would probably think differently too.

Roger Layton
Roger Layton

they don't want any terrorists in their country.

Josh Hernandez
Josh Hernandez

Clearly I'm trolling lolz... but seriously.... why can't we get an international consensus for some kind of relief....

Josh Hernandez
Josh Hernandez

One of the reasons why I have no faith left in humanity... perhaps it is time for the revelation to pass

Josh Hernandez
Josh Hernandez

May peace upon them.... for I fear they may not know it any longer

Jakaro
Jakaro

What is the difference between a "refugee" and any other immigrant except a sob story a legal loophole? Australians would be wise to save their compassion for their own children and grandchildren instead of turning their country over to masses of Muslim immigrants who, given the chance, would swamp it in record time. It would take only a small fraction of the world's more than one billion Muslims to make Australians an oppressed, and perhaps an extinct, minority in their own country, much as happened to my Armenians ancestors in theirs. As the bones of 1.5 million Armenians lie in the Syrian Desert, where the Turks marched them to die, in a not too far distant future those of Australians may be found on the red sand of the Outback.

If Tony Abbott is a patriot, as he appears to be, his government will formally repudiate the 1951 Refugee Convention and let his country's would-be conquerors know Australia will remain Australian.

Natasha Lahera
Natasha Lahera

Jason Xu, Seriously, I have no idea what this woman is on about. She's just ranting.

Natasha Lahera
Natasha Lahera

Nadia, I find this especially interesting considering his oh-so-common Hispanic last name. He COULD be from Spain, but I doubt it. So in other words, he, or someone not too far back in his line is an immigrant.

Natasha Lahera
Natasha Lahera

Rachel, You know illegal immigrants can't receive social benefits, right?

Natasha Lahera
Natasha Lahera

Josh, Speak for yourself. You are either a troll or a complete psychopath. This has nothing to do with "survival of the fittest" and has everything to do with "where you were born determines whether you will be given the opportunity to live at all." Being hit by a stray bullet has nothing to do with one's adaptability. Many coast off of the technology of others, and survive simply through luck, as opposed to superior skills. MANY refugees achieve more than the "natives" when allowed to live emigrate to a place not rife with violence, oppression, and corruption.

Kylie Mullin
Kylie Mullin

What about the 60,000 visa overstayers who arrive by plane? No-one seems to be getting thier kinckers in a knot about this. Australians are involved in ´wars´ in many countries...thus, the government has acknowledged that these are places in crisis...yet,these folk are villified for wanting to seek refuge. it´s Murdoch hype and cruelty. They are people....when did Australians become so selfish? I find it embarrassing that it is even an issue.

Natasha Lahera
Natasha Lahera

Kellee, The United States wouldn't exist if we took up that policy. Our nation was built on immigrants, after white people slaughtered Indians, that is. Did you know the majority of med students at our most prestigious med schools are not American? You know why? Because Americans are "too dumb" to get in. That's saying a lot. All of our high paying engineering and tech jobs? Americans lack the skills to fill them. There are countless examples of exceptional immigrants.

Lucas Bavaresco
Lucas Bavaresco

australia, norway, netherlands, finland... i belive you could say that they look are the "new land" or the "promised land" for most 3rd world country's immigrants

Lily Shroff
Lily Shroff

Josh see a psychiatrist. You need some serious help asap.

Sherry Nabijou
Sherry Nabijou

They have enough land a resources... Really this is the act of barbarians to return these boats... DONT they know people would not take such drastic actions unless they were desperate????.... Cant they just give them some land to cultivate and live?

Lynn Pedersen
Lynn Pedersen

God come to their aid and help these peoples. Please and I thank you for their safety.

Nadia Sayenko
Nadia Sayenko

Josh, I don't think you know what darwin actually meant by that statement. Learn some punctuation and stop commenting on every post. We get it, you don't like the immigrants. But let's not pretend that it's because of any other reason than your own bigotry.

Josh Hernandez
Josh Hernandez

when it comes down to it.. in the most extreme circumstances you all would place your well being and interests over that of a people like these ...... to say other wise is a lie... as the saying goes... it is survival of the fittest... leave this poor woman alone you false humanistic pigs....

Josh Hernandez
Josh Hernandez

now for one second lets not pretend in some false sense of humanism here. you know as well as i know human beings are only worth the work they can output.... you must hold some human beings lower than your self. i know i do... to say other wise is a lie... to put it simply some of us just want to watch the world burn

Josh Hernandez
Josh Hernandez

hmmm darwinism at its finest..... adapt and survive... its what humans are good at

Lorraine Hansen
Lorraine Hansen

We are all brothers and before we understand this the world is doomed

Josh Hernandez
Josh Hernandez

tis merely the human condition.... soon darwinianism will take hold ... it will be survival of the fittest

Josh Hernandez
Josh Hernandez

who can blame them for protecting their interests first.. if only USA could do the same with the illegal immigrants

Jerry Pecks
Jerry Pecks

Wow, real intelligent and humane solution.

Jill Hilycord
Jill Hilycord

Kellee and Heidi, unless your family is Native America, your ancestors came here in the exact same way.

tranzitlounge
tranzitlounge

@TroyBramston @TIME The Doldrums of asylum seeker politics is that Australian humanitarian policy regarding boat refugees has been marooned!

tranzitlounge
tranzitlounge

@TIME @TIMEWorld . The Doldrums of asylum seeker politics is that Australian humanitarian policy regarding boat refugees has been marooned!

carolynabliawalker
carolynabliawalker

@Jill Hilycord And who in hell is a native> People have been invading other peoples land for thousand of years.