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Living in limbo, but ready to risk death at sea

By Helen Regan
January 4, 2014

Burmese asylum-seekers currently based in Indonesia say they will continue to risk their lives and travel by boat to Australia, despite the very high chance they will never get there.

Among the rolling hills of Cisarua, a small town three hours from Jakarta, about 800 asylum-seekers live in overcrowded houses.

Those who have fled their homes in Burma, Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere in Asia have paid people-smugglers to take them to Indonesia, in the hope that one day they will be able start a new life in Australia.

Saw Aung is originally from Mon state. He fled his home because he said he was being persecuted for being a Muslim. He has been living in Cisarua with his wife, Cho Cho, and two children for a year.

He has already tried to get to Australia by boat but a storm forced the tiny vessel to turn back to Indonesia.

“Suddenly, heavy rain and a storm came in. Everyone was scared,” he said. “We had to bail the water from our boat. We collected water in bottles to drink. We thought we would sink – we were so scared.”

Thousands of people like Saw Aung are waiting in Indonesia. Some must wait for years for their asylum claims to be processed. The Indonesian government has not signed the UN refugee convention and so claims for asylum are left to the UN refugee agency – UNHCR – to determine.

But because of the vast numbers of asylum-seekers entering Indonesia, many people fall through the cracks.

Anwar Begum, a Rohingya woman from Arakan state, was smuggled in by boat from Malaysia with her eight children.

She hasn’t made contact with the UNHCR or any NGOs operating in the area.

With no money and eight children to feed, she is desperate.

“It’s really difficult to live here. I can’t afford to buy food, to rent a place. We now live off other people’s sympathy. I don’t have anything else,” she said.

To escape persecution, some 24,000 Rohingyas fled Arakan state in boats from January to August 2013, according to UNHCR.

The boats are old and overcrowded. There is insufficient food, clean drinking water or fuel, and many vessels break down or capsize.

On 3 November, a boat carrying 70 Rohingya refugees sank off Burma’s coast.

And on 10 December a boat carrying 32 people, including families with young children, sank in rough seas off the Indonesian island of Java. Three asylum seekers, including a toddler, died. The vessel was on route to Christmas Island.

Those who make it to Indonesia have no rights – they are considered illegal immigrants by the government and are in constant threat of being arrested and sent to detention centres.

Saw Aung is tired of living in limbo; he does not know how much longer he will have to wait for his claim to asylum to be processed.

“I can’t buy the food we need. It’s hard for me that I can’t take care of my family,” he said.

Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the asylum-seekers living in Indonesia are in a dire situation.

“They cannot work, they cannot send their kids to school. Ironically, some asylum-seekers with UNHCR documents are still being arrested by Indonesian police,” he said.

With no rights in Indonesia and with barely enough money to survive on, many asylum-seekers cannot face the agonising wait for their claims to be processed.

In September the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, introduced “Operation Sovereign Borders”, a policy that would turn away any asylum-seeker who tried to land on Australian shores by boat. The policy was to curb the number of asylum-seekers getting to Australia.

The boatpeople are now either sent to Papua New Guinea (PNG) or Nauru island for offshore processing, or they are sent back to Indonesia where wretched detention centres await them.

Australia said their policy is working, noting that, since September, fewer boats have arrived on Australian shores.

But Andreas Harsono said Australia is overlooking the real issue because people who are desperate will still take their chances on the high seas.

“There is certainty in going to Australia. There is no certainty in Indonesia,” he said. “By taking the risk there is a certainty in the next 24 hours, in the next three days – including death.”

In the last five years, asylum-seekers arriving in Indonesia have increased by 2,000 percent, according to Human Rights Watch.

Harsono believes Australia and Indonesia need to start working together.

“The Australian government needs to work with Indonesia particularly, but also by working with the other host countries,” he said. “Because if they don’t work with the other countries, Australia cannot solve the problem by itself.”

He urged Indonesia to sign the UN refugee convention and give asylum-seekers more legal mechanisms.

But because of the desperate situation of life for the asylum-seekers currently sheltering in Indonesia, many refugees in Cisarua feel the do-or-die voyages across the Indian Ocean are their only option.

“We have no other option than to go by boat. We don’t care about anything or whether they send us to PNG or somewhere [else]. At least my children can get an education there. Anything is better than here,” said Saw Aung.

Meanwhile, the Australian government vows to maintain its hardline approach.

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