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Migrant Shipwreck Survivors say They Had No Choice - 2001-10-24

The survivors of a shipwreck in Indonesian waters say they had no choice but to attempt their illegal trip to Australia. The migrants are frustrated with the slow process of applying for asylum and with the lack of attention given their plight.

As the rain comes down at a reception center for illegal immigrants outside the Indonesian capital, the 44 shipwreck survivors are angry. Most fled Iraq or Afghanistan months or years ago on a long, largely illegal journey that brought them to the Indonesian port of Lampung in Sumatra late Friday. There they boarded a boat that people-smugglers assured them was seaworthy. Instead, it sank shortly after setting off for Australia, killing at least 350 people aboard. "We paid for the smuggler, he prepared the documents, we came here," says one migrant. The 25-year-old says he fled Afghanistan because of persecution by the Taleban government. He does not want to give his name, for fear his comments may jeopardize relatives in Afghanistan and his efforts to get to Australia again. He is angry because he says the international community, and Australia in particular, refuses to accept asylum seekers, many of whom say their lives are in danger. "In my idea, the Australian government is the cooperator of the smugglers," he says. "Why you close the legal way?" Australia, facing the prospect of tens of thousands of illegal migrants landing on its shores, has refused to let boatloads of illegal immigrants land on Australian soil while officials process asylum claims. Australia does accept thousands of legal asylum seekers, but critics say it takes too long. Many desperate people attempt the illegal journey, often using Indonesia as a transit point.

Once they get to Indonesia, many apply to live in another country through the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Jakarta. But the commission only helps asylum seekers if it determines they are persecuted and are not economic migrants. Amal Hassan from Iraq says she was becoming desperate as she waited, so she paid a smuggler $1,500 dollars to board the ship Friday. "Every time I call him [to ask] "Please, when we go? When we go?" And he says, 'We quickly go.' Three months, it took. Believe me, I haven't any money to eat, I haven't anything," she says. Fellow passenger Ahmed Hussein Ali from Iraq is bitter. "The worst part of the United Nations is in Jakarta," he says. "For one year we waited there, they didn't do anything for us. So I left Jakarta to go to Australia. There I lost nine persons, about half of my family. Now life is nothing for me."

UNHCR officials say they understand the asylum seekers' frustrations. Many of those on the boat that sank qualified for refugee status. Only six of them survived. Tony Garcia, with the UNHCR, says "there are 30 among this group who were refugees who were supposed to be resettled by UNHCR eventually but they were desperate and took the boat." The asylum seekers say they hope the deaths of their loved ones will prompt Indonesia, Australia and the United Nations to address the problem. If not, they say they will probably take their chances again by setting sail for Australia.