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Indonesia is Crossroads for Afghan Refugees


Delegates from more than 30 countries are gathering in Indonesia to tackle the problem of people-smuggling networks that prey on people desperate to escape economic hardship or repressive regimes. "I stayed for one week in Thailand, and after that when I get some problem with Thailand police, my smuggler send me to Kuala Lumpur," said Ashgar Jan, who fled his home in Afghanistan 13 months ago because of the repressive Taleban government. "I wait more than one month in Kuala Lumpur. And from Kuala Lumpur my smuggler sent me to Medan city, Indonesia." Ashgar Jan, 26, is living in a modest hotel on the Indonesian island of Lombok. "And from Medan I come to Jakarta, and I stayed more than 10 days in Jakarta," he said. "After that I come to Surabaya, and more than 3 months I stay in Surabaya, and after that I take a ship with all these people."

The Taleban wanted Mr. Jan, a businessman, to become a soldier. He reached Indonesia by paying more than $5,000 to people smugglers to get him travel documents and arrange his journey. "The smuggler make a passport. For smugglers, nothing is impossible," he said. Along with 212 others, Mr. Jan boarded a ferry arranged by the people-smugglers to try to make it to Australia, which they hoped to enter illegally.

After 10 days at sea, Australian authorities caught them and returned them to Indonesia in November. Now they live in a hotel, where food and housing is sponsored by international aid organizations. Without any money of their own, they have nothing to do but sit and wonder about what may happen next and what they have left behind. "Because from early in the morning we get up, we take breakfast, and after that we just wait for lunch," said Ashgar Jan. "After that we wait for dinner. Just these three things, nothing more. And everytime we will think our family, our sons our country, our relatives and we don't have any information about that. Maybe they all died, they all lived." Mr. Jan and his friends have applied for official refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The UNHCR must determine whether the life of a would-be refugee is genuinely threatened at home and that he or she is not merely an economic migrant.

They now wait for the UNHCR's decision. Recent events have put a spotlight on the asylum-seekers and the people-smugglers who prey on their desperation. Last October, at least 350 people died trying to reach Australia when the boat they were on sank in Indonesian waters. The defeat of the Taleban in Afghanistan also has increased awareness of the Afghans who had fled the country. Although the Taleban has been defeated, Mr. Jan and his friends reject the argument that they could go home. They say it remains unstable. "If Taliban is finished, ... another group becomes powerful, they make their own government." Mr. Jan says after his experience, he will not trust the people-smugglers again. He does not want to go back to Afghanistan, and knows he has little chance of making it to Australia. For the moment, he can only wait until the UNHCR decides his fate for him.

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