The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Pasir Putih Asylum Seekers

THE LOSMEN OF LOST DREAMS © Duncan Graham 2005

East Java’s Pasir Putih is the frazzled Surabayans’ weekend escape spot, a four-hour drive east from smog city. Despite its name the beach is more grey than white, but the sea is shallow and safe. It’s ideal for parents who want to relax and let the kids have a splash, a sail and a bit of freedom.

Freedom? That’s something a small group of foreigners at Pasir Putih long for as they gaze across the Madura Sea and wonder when they’ll ever leave their involuntary home and reluctant host.

Decision time is looming. Their claims for refugee status have been rejected and officials say their only option is repatriation. (See sidebar) But still they hope.

These are the almost forgotten folk, 27 Iraqis, five Afghans and three Iranians who fled their homelands but failed in their bid to reach Australia.

They are all former customers of people smugglers whose Indonesian boats were turned back by the Australian Navy.

They were then caught by Indonesian police and transferred to Pasir Putih where they pray against the odds for a home in the West.

‘I cannot return to Afghanistan, it’s too dangerous,’ said Juma Khan Nasiri, 25, a veteran of three attempts to reach Australia. The first in 2001 cost him US$4,000. It lasted only a day before the boat’s engines broke down an hour out of Surabaya. There were about 300 people on board.

Trip two cost US$500 and for this fee he spent 15 days in the ocean, again with a failed engine. ‘We just drifted,’ he told The Jakarta Post. ‘I don’t know where we went, but I think that God helps us.’ This time the boat had around 150 passengers.

They eventually landed on Sumba Island in Nusa Tenggara and were sent to Jakarta after sheltering in a mosque.

Undaunted, Nasiri and 130 other hopefuls tried again in 2002. He said he now had only US$200. This just happened to be enough for a spot on an unnamed boat which set out from Mataram in Lombok.

They were never to glimpse their promised land. Instead the boat was boarded off Ashmore Reef (in the Timor Sea) by Australian Navy sailors. Nasiri alleged he and five other young men were handcuffed when they protested against not being allowed to proceed, and that some passengers had threatened to sink the boat.

Nasiri said he was a Muslim from a persecuted minority sect. He is a personable young man with an extraordinary grasp of English despite claiming no university education, formal learning or close involvement with native speakers.

‘I just wanted to talk to the people who were responsible for making the rules that said we could not land in Australia,’ he said. ‘I have an uncle in Adelaide (South Australia) and I will do any work. Some Afghan families have already been granted refugee status.’

He said the boat’s engine was repaired, the people were fed and after five days found themselves closer to Indonesia than Australia. They beached near Kupang.

The asylum seekers occupy an old six-unit losmen overlooking the beach. Each unit has its own toilet. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) pays for their food and accommodation. This allegedly causes resentment amongst some Indonesians.

There are no obvious guards and the foreigners are free to mix with locals and tourists at the beach. The children cannot go to school, an issue concerning the adults.

Some units have television sets and other electrical appliances bought by sympathetic visitors, including relatives who have become citizens of Western nations.

Firas Noubi, 29, was on the same boat as Nasiri, but says he was not handcuffed.

With six other relatives, all members of the minority Mandaean religion, Noubi fled Iraq for Australia where his mother now lives on a permanent resident visa.

The Mandaeans come from the Iraq-Iran border and follow the teachings of John the Baptist but say they are not Christian. They claim persecution by Muslims and the state.

Unlike Nasiri, who said he enjoyed good relations with local Indonesians, Noubi said there were some tensions and alleged that he’d already been assaulted.

Noubi’s Iraqi neighbors are the Munir family led by aunt Rajaa Yousif, 55. They are Catholics and include three feisty young women who have become fluent in Indonesian. The family has three relatives in Germany, one in Holland and claim there are none left in Iraq. They said they were prepared to go anywhere. They also alleged they had received no help from Indonesian Catholics.

Noubi and his family said they paid US$1000 each for their place on the boat from Mataram. ‘We thought the Australians would be sympathetic towards us when they saw the old people and the children,’ he said. ‘The sailors just replied that they had to follow their government’s new rules and could not accept refugees from the sea.

‘We cannot go back to Iraq. It’s too dangerous. We want to go anywhere where we will be treated as people.’

Noubi, a goldsmith who has had a university education in his homeland, said he did not want people to feel sorry for the failed asylum seekers, but to understand their plight.

‘We are fed and sheltered but we are not allowed to work,’ he said. ‘We’ve been here more than three years and we don’t know what the future holds. We have nothing to do. We feel like animals, not humans.

‘Why can’t anyone find a solution? The problem is small enough.”


The Australian government has taken a tough stance against people smuggling from Indonesia with a ‘border protection’ policy of turning back boats and locking asylum seekers who make landfall in offshore camps.

During the past 20 years the average number of asylum seekers has been about 1,000 a year. At the height of the people smuggling controversy only 4,000 made it to Australia. Now few boats attempt the journey.

The Australian government says genuine asylum seekers should stay in the first safe camp after fleeing their homeland and apply for refugee status through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Australia currently accepts about 6,000 refugees a year.

However a Human Rights Watch report claimed many asylum seekers knew little or nothing about UNHCR offices in Malaysia and Indonesia. The smugglers told them that applications in those countries would fail and they would be arrested.

Despite their bravery, initiative and determination – all qualities which make ideal citizens - the boat people have been dubbed ‘illegals’ and ‘queue jumpers’ by a hostile Australian public. The anger has grown since the advent of Islamic terrorism.

Some fear fundamentalists may seek a sea entry to Australia bypassing checking procedures in the official refugee camps. Others claim the asylum seekers are not victims of persecution but ‘economic refugees’ attracted by Australia’s welfare system and high wages.

Ronnie Bala, a spokesman for IOM in Jakarta said the UNHCR had rejected all the Pasir Putih people’s claims for refugee status and resettlement in any country.

‘Their status is now ‘irregular migrants’,’ he said. ‘It’s better for them to go home, but we won’t force them. It must be voluntary and we’ll give them up to US$1,500 as resettlement money.

‘In the past four years 877 people have left Indonesia for Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. So far no problems have been reported.

‘I don’t know how much longer the Indonesian government will allow the situation (at Pasir Putih) to continue but we will feed them and counsel them to return.

‘They should respect Indonesian rules and not take advantage of Indonesian generosity.’
(Published in The Jakarta Post 23 July 05)

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