Their greatest risk remains their greatest hope
Michael Bachelard, West Java | August 15, 2012
AS AUSTRALIANS were digesting their country’s latest policy twist on Monday night, a group of Afghan asylum seekers clustered anxiously around their computer in West Java, devouring the news.
The tough new policy is designed to deter men such as these ethnic Hazaras from trying to reach Australia. But they insisted to The Age yesterday that they were still determined to board a boat and make the hazardous trip.
”When you think that you may die in Afghanistan, there are two ways,” refugee Mohamad Khani said. ”You stay there and die [or] you can go to find a safe place to have a better future … We are going [to Australia]. We don’t have another choice.”
Eighty men live cheek by jowl in this compound of eight rooms in the picturesque town of Cisarua. They are part of a constantly shifting population of Hazara refugees waiting for the call from a people smuggler to say their boat is ready.
They are avid consumers of Australian news because Australia is their greatest risk and their greatest hope. But these men were clear: they had come too far on their journey to Australia to back out now, however harsh the government’s policy.
In his 22 years, Mr Khani has felt almost constantly under threat. In Afghanistan, his father was kidnapped by the Taliban for lacking a beard. He escaped and the family fled to Pakistan.
There the family were unable to work or study. Mr Khani’s cousin was killed there, and they were hounded by extremist bombers and the police.
Mr Khani moved back to Afghanistan to work as an electrician. But he said the Taliban were resurgent and Hazaras trying to earn a living were a target.
”They are simple people in the daytime, but at night they are Taliban … with guns, searching people and questioning people.”
He finally became an asylum seeker two weeks ago because he believes that when the international military forces leave Afghanistan in 2014, ”our problems will become more”.
Although the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has records of about 4000 asylum seekers in Indonesia, some estimate there are as many as 10,000 seeking passage to Australia. However, the Hazaras were less certain about whether the new policy would deter their countrymen from leaving Afghanistan. Mr Khani said some might now consider seeking asylum in North America or Europe.
Sayed Rahmatullah Alemzadeh Haiz, a former journalist, said the prospect of long detention on Nauru or Manus Island would not deter the group.
”If the Australian government takes me to a detention centre, they will not kill me. But if I go to the Taliban, I’m sure they will kill me,” he said.
Ali Reza, 17, found his way to Cisarua via Thailand and Malaysia, and then spent five months in the Tanjung Pinang detention centre in Indonesia – an experience he said was more like prison.
He said his father was killed by the Taliban, so he was the breadwinner for his mother and two brothers in Afghanistan, making him desperate to get to Australia.
He rejected the prospect of waiting, perhaps for years, in the so-called queue for a legitimate visa. ”If I wait, it will kill me by waiting. You can get anything, but you can’t get your time again,” he said.
All these men have an idealised view of Australia as a large, friendly, open country whose people do not recognise the word ”Hazara” as an insult. But they are also keen for information about Nauru and Manus Island, and how long they might need to spend there.
Ultimately, they seem resolved. Even the new policy was better than what they had come from, they said.
”When you are waking in the morning, you don’t know if you’ll go back home at night or not,” Mr Khani said. ”I cannot describe this … you see people, they look like dead bodies. They have no hope.”