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Iraqi Refugees in Indonesia Follow War at Home - 2003-03-31

Of the millions of people around the world watching news reports of the war in Iraq, perhaps none watch more closely than the Iraqis who fled their country to seek a better life elsewhere. Hundreds of Iraqis live in Indonesia, migrants who tried and failed to enter Australia illegally. A basic, but clean, room in a cheap hotel in Jakarta's backpacker district is home to Hasim Mohammed Abbas, his wife Fatima Anid, and their two young sons. The family is from Basra, a city that has become a key battleground in the war in Iraq. Ms. Anid said they are upset by this news, by what is happening to the people in Basra.

Her husband said they still have family there. His parents are there. They are old and no one is taking care of them. This family is among the roughly 500 illegal migrants who the International Organization of Migration is taking care of in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

Every year, thousands of people from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and other nations come to Indonesia because they see it as a good transit point for illegally sneaking into Australia. The IOM only cares for illegal migrants they know about, the ones who have been intercepted. Officials said there could be hundreds or thousands of Iraqis and other illegal immigrants living in Indonesia who are not on the IOM books. The Abbas family paid $8,000 to a people-smuggler who put them on a ship bound for Australia. But the ship was intercepted and turned around by the Australian navy in July 2000. Now they are housed and fed by the IOM, while they wait for their applications for refugee status to be considered by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. If the UNHCR approves their applications for refugee status, the Abbas family will be allowed to resettle in another country. If not, they must consider going back to Iraq. Hakim Wahid, 25, said he might just want to go home again. He fled Baghdad in 1995 because he said Saddam Hussein's government killed his father.

Mr. Wahid said he wants to go home when the situation is better. He said when the time comes, he can make some phone calls to ask about the situation in Baghdad and how badly the city has been damaged, then make his decision. For Mr. Abbas, the main concern is how long American and British troops will be in Iraq. He does not want to see Iraq formally occupied.

He said, "I know about the Palestinian problem. They do not have any power because of the Israeli army. And those groups do not have a good relationship. They are always fighting. So we do not want the Iraqi people to fall into a situation like Palestine." Other Iraqis are bitter about the whole situation. Asaad Saad fled Iraq in 1998, slowing making his way to Indonesia. He was refused entry to Australia two years ago when that country's security forces turned his ship around.

Mr. Saad wants to know why he has not received refugee status, since Saddam's government is so dangerous that the United States is at war with it. Now he said he mistrusts all aid organizations and governments, especially if they try to tell him it is safe to go home. "Why not believe me? When I have trouble and I lose everything and I come a dangerous way? And two years in here, I am sick now. And not help me, the office. How [am] I [to] believe that come back to my country will help me?" Mr. Saad said. Asian governments, the IOM and the UNHCR have planned a two-day meeting in Indonesia in April to look into the problem of people smuggling and illegal migrants.