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Asylum seekers caught in limbo in Indonesia
Publication Date : 28-09-2013
With three T-shirts and two pairs of trousers squeezed into a small backpack, and a photo of his family in his wallet, Mehran, 17, left his home town in Ghazni, Afghanistan, took a flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and soon found himself in a packed boat cutting through Indonesian waters.
His destination: Australia.
He paid US$7,000 for the ride - as did Ali Jaan, 23, whose father was shot by Taliban militants five years ago.
They might never reach their destination.
They left Afghanistan four months ago, expecting to reach Australia a month later.
Their boat, which was supposed to take them to the south of Sumatra island, where they were to be met by their agent, landed at Belawan port in Medan instead, after the boatman veered off-course to escape bad weather.
The 30 Hazara ethnic minority men, women and children from Afghanistan who were on board had to disembark. On their own, they hitched rides on trucks and trains, ending up in Cisarua district in Bogor on Java island, where they joined a growing community of stranded asylum seekers.
Now, as they await boats bound for Australia, new rules in Canberra could see boats bearing asylum seekers being turned back.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Jakarta recorded 8,872 asylum seekers at the end of last month, mostly Afghans.
Yesterday, 21 Middle Eastern asylum seekers drowned and many went missing after their Australia-bound boat sank off Indonesia, a grim reminder of the perilousness of their journeys.
The rising numbers of asylum seekers using Indonesia - with its sprawling and poorly monitored borders - as a transit point have burdened its detention centres, antagonised locals and turned it into a holding centre for asylum seekers, said Atika Yuanita, a public interest lawyer at the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute.
Tension has also mounted between Indonesia and Australia, with Canberra accusing Jakarta of not doing enough as it unveils new policies, under freshly elected Prime Minister Tony Abbott, that have angered Indonesians.
The A$420 million (US$392 million) raft of measures includes paying Indonesian villagers to spy for Australia, rewarding them for information on smugglers and turning back boats with asylum seekers. Local politicians call the moves offensive and a breach of Indonesia's sovereignty.
The issue threatens to dominate and sour the mood at bilateral talks next Monday between Abbott and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
At a meeting in New York on Monday with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa warned that his country would not accept violations of its borders. He released an account of their meeting, reminding Canberra to consider the Bali Process, an agreed framework for tackling human smuggling and trafficking issues affecting their countries.
"Any unilateral measure taken by Australia is worrying and can risk our close bilateral relations and the trust we've built up in the Bali Process, and because of this, it has to be avoided," he said.
Former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer hit back, telling Australian broadcaster ABC what the Indonesian boatmen did "is a breach of our sovereignty and the Indonesians need to understand that".
Indonesia's foreign ministry issued a "correction" yesterday, saying the account was not meant for the media, ABC reported.
Abbott sought to calm nerves, saying he respects Indonesia's sovereignty.
"The last thing anyone should want is to have Australia's relationship with Indonesia defined by this boats issue, which I am sure will be but a passing irritant," he told reporters.
International relations analyst Evi Fitriani at the University of Indonesia said: "The two sides really need to talk. Perhaps Abbott needs to adjust to his new role and Indonesia needs to adjust to this new person."
In the meantime, Mehran joins thousands of asylum seekers who cling to the hope of reaching Australia even though their boats could be turned back. He said: "I can't go back now - it's too costly. If I return, the Taleban will kill us minorities. I have no choice. I need to go to Australia, get a good education and a good job, and bring my family over to join me."