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