News / Asia

Australia Asylum Plan Dims Prospects for Refugees in Limbo

Indonesian police officers guard asylum seekers on a patrol boat upon arrival at a port in Merak, Banten province, Indonesia, Oct 12, 2012.
Indonesian police officers guard asylum seekers on a patrol boat upon arrival at a port in Merak, Banten province, Indonesia, Oct 12, 2012.
Kate Lamb
Refugees hoping to reach Australia are speaking out about Canberra’s plan to bar all asylum seekers who arrive by boat and instead resettle those eligible in Papua New Guinea. In Indonesia, plan of Hazara asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Pakistan to seek asylum in Australia appears out of reach.

Down a dark alleyway off the main road in Puncak, a group of ethnic Hazaras spend their days in limbo.

The mountain town about an hour south of Jakarta is home to a large asylum seeker community - mostly ethnic Hazaras that have fled persecution in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan.

Most have paid people smugglers to ferry them across multiple borders. They travel from Thailand, through the jungles of Malaysia and Indonesia until they end up here, waiting to board a fishing boat and the promise of a new life in Australia.

But with more than 15,000 asylum seekers arriving on boats already this year, the Australian government is now taking a hardline approach.

Under a new agreement announced last week, all boat arrivals will be processed offshore. If their asylum claims are approved, they will be permanently resettled in Papua New Guinea - not in Australia.

In Puncak, Hazaras like 28-year-old Sayed Kamaluddin Mousani are still trying to work out what it all means.

“Everyone here, all the asylum seekers are very sad. What does it mean that Australia will send some people to Papua New Guinea, for what? I don’t believe it is the solution,” said Mousani.

Sayed fled from Afghanistan to Iran after he was learned he was being headhunted by the Taliban. Later, the English teacher fled Iran after extremists discovered that his brother was working for the BBC news agency.

Sayed has been in Indonesia for five months now and is waiting for his family to send him the $5,000 he needs to pay a smuggler to take him on the perilous journey to Australia.

“I am scared, but I have no chance for living here. When my money is finished what can I do? It is better for me to go as soon as possible. And the ocean is dangerous, most of the people who arrive to Australia say never come by boat, because it is very dangerous. I know this,” he said.

While living illegally in Indonesia, asylum seekers cannot work or study. Most have limited funds. Taking the legal route and applying for asylum with the U.N. refugee agency can take years. Many cannot afford to wait that long.

The more seasoned asylum seekers who have experienced failed boat trips and jail time say that Australia’s asylum policies have changed before and could change again.

Hazara Mohammed Ali Babu, 47, who first arrived in 2010 from Pakistan, is doubtful the new Papua New Guinea deal will go forward.

“When I was here in Bogor, Australia announced that asylum seekers will be shifted to Nauru, but all their policies are in vain, they didn’t implement it, they didn’t act upon their policies. So I made mistake, I didn’t go because of their announced policies, so I think no one can believe this new policy,” said Babu.

Rights advocates say the new policy contradicts Australia’s obligations under the U.N. Refugee Convention - and that it’s not fair to dump refugees in the impoverished Pacific nation.

But even in the face of huge criticism - and a possible high court challenge - the Australian government is defending its position.

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