Refugee trail offers a road to nowhere
John Aglionby
28 February 2002

Thousands of asylum seekers are stuck on the illegal migration route from the Middle East to Australia, where draconian border controls offer little hope, writes John Aglionby

Hassan Abu Jaffar says he is in no hurry to have his morning shower. "Sure I've time talk," he says in broken English as I interrupt him on the way to his hostel bathroom. "I not go anywhere today." Or tomorrow, this week, next month or possibly even for the rest of the year. For this Iraqi jeweller and his 12-year-old son, Jaffar, with whom he shares a 10ft-by-10ft room in the heart of Jakarta's backpackerville, are in total limbo.

They are two of the thousands of people, mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran who have got stuck on the illegal migration route from the Middle East to Australia.

"We've been here for more than two years," he says in fluent Indonesian - something he has had plenty of time to learn - "and have no idea what will happen next."

After fleeing Iraq in 1999, Hassan paid a human smuggler $3,000 to get Jaffar and himself to Australia. The journey went smoothly until they prepared to board the final boat, for the voyage from south Java to Australia.

"The police. There. Waiting for us," Hassan said. "We were tricked."

But Hassan and Jaffar are two of the lucky few who make the mammoth trek to their vision of paradise. After six months in a squalid quarantine centre, they were granted official refugee status by the United Nations.

Now they are looking for a country to take them, and are not holding their breath waiting for someone to come forward as only a less than a dozen refugees have found new homes.

The most popular approach to the problem, as highlighted at the first ever international ministerial-level conference on combating people smuggling that ended in Bali today, is to concentrate on catching the criminals running the operations, tightening border controls and discouraging people from embarking on the Asian migration route.

It is certainly having an impact. Australia's harsh treatment of would-be asylum seekers combined with the current storm season and the deaths of more than 340 people trying to sneak into Australia when their boat sank south of Java last October has stopped the flow almost completely.

"I have only heard of one or two new arrivals since the sinking," said Iqbal Ali, an Afghan who has been in Jakarta for seven months and is still seeking refugee status. "This route is basically closed now."

The focus on deterrence has its drawbacks, however, according to Raymond Hall, the south-east Asia representative of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.

"There's a danger that in this post-September 11 world discussions will easily tend towards strengthening controls and it will be difficult to keep open the space for the people who are genuine refugees who need to be able to seek asylum."

He hopes the two commissions that will be set up in the wake of the conference, attended by ministers from 34 attended by ministers from 34 Asian, Pacific and Middle Eastern nations and observers from about 20 other countries and organisations, will not forget these people and the thousands stuck in places like Jakarta en route from their home nations to "paradise".

One source of hope on the horizon is the stabilisation of Afghanistan. Iqbal said about half of the Afghans in his hostel are willing to return but he is not among them. "It's still not safe there. If the government can't even grant [sic] the life of a minister, how can they grant the life of a simple person," he said in reference to the recent murder of the transport minister in Kabul.

Hassan meanwhile is brooding on what he would do if he met Abu Quessay, the smuggler who duped him. "I kill him. No question," he said. Mr Quessay is currently in detention in Jakarta but is unlikely to face serious charges because Indonesia, like most countries in the region, has no laws criminalising people smuggling.

Many governments are hurrying to remedy this but Indonesia, where a backlog of more than 100 bills is building up in the parliament, is not showing much haste. And when the weather improves in a few weeks the smugglers are likely to start tempting the illegal migrants with new offers of "safe passage" to Australia.

"It might sound crazy but many of us will try again," Iqbal said. "We cannot stay here for ever."


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