Shipwrecked in Indonesia

The Age
Thursday 6 September 2001

Faizullah, a shopkeeper, was happy with the service he got for the $US12,000 he had paid to smugglers in the Afghan capital, Kabul, the Pakistan city of Lahore and Jakarta to bring his pregnant wife Fatima and their two children to Australia.

One smuggler even travelled with them, keeping his distance, to make sure nothing went wrong during the trip to Indonesia. 'He told us to ignore him,' Faizullah says.

Their flights from Pakistan to Jakarta, via Bangkok, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, went smoothly, the fake Indonesian visas and Afghan passports passing unchallenged. 'In Jakarta another man, a Pakistani, was waiting for us at the airport. He took us to a rented house and told us not to talk to any neighbors, stay inside and wait until he came to take us on the final leg of the trip.' Over several months, smugglers from one of six big people-smuggling syndicates in Indonesia parked clients - who had paid them more than $US700,000 - in safe houses across Jakarta and in its outlying suburbs.

Abdul Rashid Matin, a 35-year-old nurse from Kabul, was also happy, surprised the arrangements went so smoothly for himself, his wife and four children.

In Pakistan he had been shown a photograph of the smuggler who would be waiting for him among the teeming faces of taxi drivers and con artists who tout for business at Jakarta airport.'

The smugglers fulfilled every promise until the time we stepped on to the boat,' Matin says. 'That's when we realised we had been left to a terrible fate.' It was almost dark by the time the smugglers collected 138 people, most of whom had never met, from the safe houses and brought them to a port on the southern coast of Java (the smugglers warn their clients not to reveal the exact location).

There was no time to properly check the KM Harapan Jaya II as the tide was moving fast, the smugglers said, and the police might come. But they were to find out later the boat's hull was rotting, there were no working pumps or life jackets as promised, and it would have been overcrowded with only a dozen aboard - let alone 138.

As the boat chugged out to sea a couple of teenagers who had picked up basic Bahasa Indonesian while staying at their safe house learnt from the four Indonesian crew that the trip to Australia's Christmas Island was expected to take seven days and seven nights. The smugglers had told them 30 hours.

But they had barely had time to digest that news when the boat hit rocks off Nusa Kembangan, Indonesia's 'Devil's Island', in the early hours of the morning.

When water started to fill the hull, the asylum seekers tried to bail with their hands. Said Sakhi, 20, fell into the sea as waves washed over them. 'For God's sake help me,' he screamed before slipping away and drowning.

Fatima, 20, clutched her baby, Murtaza Roni, who had been born in Indonesia two-and-a-half months earlier.

But as the boat split into pieces she lost her grip and the baby fell into the water. 'We could see him.

But nobody could reach him,' says Abdul Rashid Matin. 'The rest of us managed to get ashore and then we found the body. It was a huge shock to all of us.' Three weeks later Fatima sits on the concrete floor of a dormitory in the jail on Nusa Kembangan, her sad eyes looking only downwards, the look of shame and despair. She has not spoken for days.'

We had to come even though we lost our baby,' says husband Faizullah (right), 24. 'In Afghanistan the (ruling) Taliban was going to kill me because I refused to fight for them,' he says. 'But I feel now that if I could stay anywhere in the world it would not make up for the loss of our baby.' Many of the hundreds of asylum seekers from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries who are stranded in Indonesia have similar horror stories.

Boats carrying hundreds of people have sunk, drowning all aboard. Like the Vietnamese boat people before them, the new asylum seekers trying to reach Australia have been the targets of modern-day pirates.

Some survivors say Indonesian authorities have, at times, helped push boats out to sea knowing they are not seaworthy.

Files held by Australian officials in Jakarta and Canberra reveal how dozens of attempts to reach Australia's shores have ended in tragedy. But the Howard Government refused a request from The Age for access to the files so the stories could be publicised as a warning to others not to attempt the treacherous voyage.

The government has instead spent millions of dollars on a widely criticised propaganda documentary that is a joke among asylum seekers.

The slick documentary warns viewers that should they try to enter Australian waters illegally they risk drowning in giant mid-ocean whirlpools or tropical storms, being eaten by sharks, mauled by giant crocodiles, bitten by snakes or left languishing in dusty refugee camps in the middle of the Simpson Desert.'

These people are not fools,' says a United Nations official in Jakarta. 'They can see through the propaganda.' The survivors of the KM Harapan Jaya II, like hundreds of other asylum seekers, are unwelcome in Indonesia, where authorities are becoming increasingly impatient with them.

When they are caught, Indonesia's policy is to place them in 'quarantine', usually a jail compound with criminals or at a guarded hostel or cheap hotel pending their assessment by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

But they often escape or officials allow them to walk away. Their only option then is to try to arrange a passage with other smugglers.

Even if they are assessed to be refugees, third countries - including Australia - have been slow to accept them, leaving Indonesia, a country struggling with its own 1.5 million internally displaced people, with the burden of coping with the rapidly growing numbers.

Lukmiardi, a senior official at Indonesia's Justice Ministry, says placing all asylum seekers in quarantine is proving impossible 'given that their numbers are reaching into the thousands and are likely to increase'.

He urges the building of proper detention facilities 'to convey the message that Indonesia is not a transit point for illegal migrants'.

Tensions are running high on Nusa Kembangan, the prison island off the central Java city of Cilacap that houses some of Indonesia's most notorious criminals, including Bob Hasan, the one-time golfing partner of the former dictator, Suharto.

'Our job is to provide security for Indonesian criminals, not foreigners,' says Djono, a guard on the island that has been a prison since the Dutch colonial era. 'The presence of these people is a big problem for us.'

Abdul Rashid Matin, the nurse from Kabul, speaks for the group of survivors, many of whom are unwell because of the lack of food and water and primitive conditions on the island. 'As you are Australians, please report to your country that we are suffering and appreciate very much your humanitarian program,' he tells The Age.

'You have taken in many Afghans before. We know that. We hope you will please help us.' Abdul Ghani, 20, presses to the front of the group. 'Please can you tell us. Should we stay here or escape? Please tell us. We are desperate.' Figures supplied by Indonesia's Directorate-General of Immigration shows that up till July, 439 foreigners in Indonesia had been granted refugee status, 557 were being assessed, and 737 had unclear status.

But officials say several thousand more asylum seekers are in Indonesia at any time.

'About 84 per cent of those granted refugee status are from Iraq,' says Rachmat Tanjung, the head of the Foreigners Supervisory Coordination Office at the Directorate-General of Immigration.

Tanjung says that one of the biggest problems is the breakdown of the refugee assessment system because other countries are shirking their commitments to accept those found to have a fear of persecution if they returned home.

'Migrants go to any length to reach even the outer shore of the destination country (Australia) because they believe it would be much easier to fight for refugee status if they have already arrived on their dreamland,' Tanjung says.

While refugees wait for their applications for resettlement to be considered, the International Organisation for Migration gives them $US50 a month. Australia provides the money.

Shipwrecked in Indonesia

But the presence of refugees who share houses in Indonesian cities, towns or villages have often caused problems in the local communities, including gang fights.

When 33 Iraqis were caught arriving on North Sumatra recently, two men cut open their chests and a mother threw her baby to the ground to protest against being taken to a local immigration shelter, instead of Jakarta.

Gira Prawijaya, the head of the police Foreign Monitoring Office on Lombok, where several hundred Iraqi and Afghan asylum seekers are staying, says the situation has become intolerable.

'They (the asylum seekers) are so outrageous,' he says. 'They come to this country with fake passports but act like nobles, demanding first-class facilities and services,' he says.

Often those in immigration shelters go on hunger strikes. A few have sewn up their mouths or cut their tongues to protest against the refusal by Indonesian authorities to take them to Jakarta, where smugglers are easily found, usually in the city's biggest McDonald's on any night after 9pm.

An Indonesian policeman who worked undercover for months in an international squad funded by Australia to track the smugglers says each syndicate has a field coordinator for each country who employs hotel providers, boats and crews, the producers of passports and visas, and travel agents. He says network members are usually of Arab descent.

The two best known syndicate bosses are Pakistani. They fly first or business class, use at least four aliases and always travel with four to six bodyguards. 'They are very dangerous, deceitful, untouchable,' says the policemen, who asked not to identified.

While drug smugglers face execution in Indonesia and possession of a firearm can send a person to jail for 20 years, the laws covering people smuggling are vague and untested.

One syndicate boss, known as 'Captain Bram', who was recently in Cambodia with 241 Afghans and Pakistanis trying to get to Australia, has often been arrested in Indonesia but is always released because of a lack of evidence.

'Money talks,' the policeman says. Smugglers often meet clients openly in the jails and immigration shelters. 'The syndicates work very secretly and are hard to infiltrate,' the policeman says.

The undercover policeman says the operation from the start until the asylum seekers board a boat is sophisticated and professional.

Passports are are usually genuine but the names and visas fake.

The policeman says the asylum seekers are told to destroy their travel documents when they arrive in Indonesia by either plane or boat from Malaysia, which has emerged as the people smuggling hub because it allows visa-free entry for people from most Muslim countries.

Without proof of where they are from, asylum seekers cannot be sent home.

There are two main sea routes from Indonesia. One through the eastern islands to the tiny, uninhabited Ashmore Reef 200 kilometres north-west of the Australian mainland. The route to Christmas Island is faster but riskier because of the notoriously rough seas that can blow up at any time of the year.

On Nusa Kembangan, the Afghan survivors have been told by prison guards and workers about the drama involving the people on the Tampa and how they were plucked from their own sinking boat off Christmas Island.'

If we get another another chance to go, we will go,' says Abdul Ghani. 'Those people aboard are being taken to be resettled in a third country. That is all we are asking for ourselves.'

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