Asylum seekers risk all for Australian dreamland
By Niniek Karmini, AP, Jul 6, 2012
CISARUA, Indonesia (AP)—Rahmatullah Afzaly says the thought of boarding a rickety Indonesian fishing boat in roiling seas, crammed with hundreds of other asylum seekers, is terrifying. But it’s nothing compared to his fear of the Taliban.
His lips quiver and he struggles to keep the tears inside as he allows his memory to drift back home to Afghanistan, where scores of ethnic Hazaras like himself have been captured, tortured and killed by Islamic militants.
He and thousands of other asylum seekers from various war-ravaged and impoverished countries have made it to Indonesia, but Australia is where they seek a better life. And they are risking death to find it.
Unwilling to languish for years here in detention centers while their cases are heard, many board smugglers’ boats to attempt the 500-kilometer (300-mile) trip to Australia’s Christmas Island.
Concern over the journey has escalated in the past three weeks. Two boats capsized and another was rescued in rough seas while en route to Christmas Island, which is closer to Indonesia than mainland Australia. More than 90 people are believed to have died, and hundreds more have drowned in similar accidents that have become commonplace over the past few years.
“We know that we can die on our way … but there is no life in our country,” Afzaly says, weeping softly. Four other men from his homeland, all minority Shia Muslims, cover their faces to hide their own emotions inside the small rented house they share in West Java province.
“If we can reach the safe country, then we will have a better future,” he says. “That’s why we choose to take whatever risk.”
The incidents have sparked a fresh wave of fierce debate in Australia, where the two main political parties agree that the asylum seekers should be sent elsewhere but remain deadlocked over where to take them. Meanwhile, the dilapidated boats keep coming, loaded with migrants who believe their cases will be processed faster if they make it to Australian shores.
The number arriving by boat has more than doubled since 2000. So far this year, more than 70 vessels carrying about 5,200 migrants have reached Australia, according to immigration officials.
Many migrants first hear about the risky journey at home on the Internet or through word of mouth. They sell their land and all their belongings and hand over fistfuls of cash to people smugglers who make arrangements for travel documents, fake passports and the necessary bribes. They typically travel alone and are met by a network of contacts directing them on to the next stop. Sometimes, they are swindled and left stranded and penniless.
But desperation continues to motivate many to overlook the risks. For about $8,000, they take their chances aboard a small fishing boat with few provisions and often no safety gear.