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Afghan refugees' fraught route to Australia

Video by Solenn HONORINE , Tim DEAGLE

Text by Solenn HONORINE

Latest update : 2009-08-19

Afghans account for the vast majority of the 1,600 asylum seekers presently in Indonesia. They are hoping to reach Australia, but for many the journey is riddled with obstacles.

For the past 18 months, Indonesia has been facing an unprecedented inflow of migrants, mostly asylum seekers from Afghanistan. The country is overwhelmed by this sudden inflow: there are currently 1,300 people in detention centers throughout the archipelago, and another 1,600 taken care of by UN agencies.


But because Indonesia has not signed the international convention on refugees, it never grants asylum to anyone. Therefore people fleeing violence at home are left in a very difficult situation: their only hope is to find a third country that might accept them, but this process can take years, during which time their lives are put on hold.
That is the case for Saeed Bahrami. He fled Afghanistan nine years ago, with his wife and children. They dreamt of reaching Australia, a country where they would be safe from persecution. But instead, they are stuck in a limbo.

The two youngest of Saeed’s seven children are born in Indonesia, including 3-year-old Mariam. “He doesn’t have a nationality. He can’t be Indonesian, and he can’t be Afghan either because he was born here”, Saeed explains. “Life here is difficult. We can’t be free men here; it’s like we’ve been in a prison for 10 years. We’re living like prisoners: we eat, sleep, eat, sleep, that’s all we can do”.
Yet, however difficult Saeed’s fate can be, it has not deterred new migrants from flocking to Indonesia in the past 18 months. They say they did not have any choice: to protect their lives, they had to flee violence at home. Some arrived legally to Indonesia with a tourist visa; some used the services of smugglers, lured by the easing of the immigration laws in neighbouring Australia after the election of the new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, in late 2007.

Most worrying for the NGO workers is the dramatic increase of minors who are arriving in Indonesia without any family. A group of 14 boys have been taken care of last week by the Christian NGO CWS, one of the rare to care for the refugees. All have undertaken the long and dangerous journey alone, in the hope of finding a safe haven.
Haider Ali, 16, is one of them. He saw his older brother being killed by the Taliban. His parents could not bear the thought of losing their only remaining son, so they scraped up 3,000 dollars in order to pay a smuggler who would take him to safety. “I don’t know where are my parents now”, Haider says. “If they are in Afghanistan, I’m afraid that maybe the Taliban killed them also”.
The mountains of Puncak Pass, a two hours' drive from the capital Jakarta, have become the new home for many of the Afghan refugees. And while they wait to be sent to a third country, they try to recreate a taste of home, however bitter it might be. “I don’t think there can be any change in Afghanistan”, says Abdul Hakem. “Over there, we don’t have the right leaders, everyone in the country just looks after his own interests, so I don’t have any hope the situation can actually improve”.
A year and a half ago, Abdul escaped from a Taliban prison, then found a smuggler who arranged his trip to Indonesia. Not that he chose this country in particular. Any place without war would have done. But by saving his own life, the 32-year-old man had to make a huge sacrifice: he had to leave his wife and four children behind. “I don’t know what happened to them. I think about them everyday, and it drives me crazy, I’m so angry”, he says. “But that’s my life now, that’s the reality here”.

It might still be years before the Afghan refugees will finally be accepted by a third country, where they can start their lives over. In the meantime, they have no choice, but to play the waiting game.

Date created : 2009-08-19