News

A group of Afghan Hazaras in the mountains of Indonesia are pinning their hopes on the UN rather than a risky boat ride to Australia. By Jack Hewson.

Asylum-seeker community awaits commission’s approval

Noorullah Sakhizada, left, is among 4000 Afghans waiting for resettlement in West Java.
Credit: JACK HEWSON

Noorullah Sakhizada’s Asiatic features distinguish him as an Afghan Hazara, but he blends in well with the crowd. At least 500 men are packed in around the artificial turf at the Kartini Futsal centre. All are Afghan, the vast majority Hazara.

“We cannot play [football] with Indonesians because they play too fast,” Sakhizada says.

A late goal draws raucous cheers, drowning out the wet season rains hammering on the roof. “Afghans play accurately but a little slow. We’re thinking about our bodies first, and then the goal,” Sakhizada says. “We have to take care of our legs, of our whole bodies, but Indonesians don’t seem to care too much about this, because they’re just thinking about the goal.”

 Sakhizada must take care because he’s not in Kabul, or a migrant community in London. Sakhizada is in Puncak, an internationally obscure mountain town in West Java. As a refugee – with very limited means, no right to work and no right to healthcare – a broken ankle would be problematic.

Sakhizada estimates 4000 Afghans live in the town at the foot of Mount Gede – an active volcano that last erupted in 1957. The asylum-seeker community is large enough to easily man an eight-team Afghan futsal league, the final of which we are now observing.

The whistle blows, signalling a 3-2 victory for “the Stars” over “Itefaq” (Persian for unity), and the crowd slowly disperses into the road. The rain has stopped, but its smell hangs fresh in the air.

Choosing a path

On face value Indonesia seems like an unusual choice of destination for a refugee. It is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no process by which to give legal status to asylum seekers or refugees.

The government effectively outsources the processing of asylum seekers to the United Nations high commissioner for Refugees in Jakarta.

The refugees who make it to Puncak do not wish to remain indefinitely. To Afghan Hazaras, Indonesia is a transit hub where they must choose one of two paths: either chance their luck on an expensive and parlous boat ride to Australia, or pin their hopes on the commission’s ability to resettle them to a third country.

In the interim, refugees and asylum seekers face a wait of months or years; a time more happily spent in the mountains than the sweat and fumes of Jakarta.

Since 2010, Australia has increased the number of refugees it accepts from the commission in Indonesia, particularly Afghan Hazaras.

According to the then named Australian Department for Immigration and Citizenship, 480 humanitarian visas were granted to applicants from Indonesia by May of the 2010-11 financial year – almost as many as Australia had resettled from Indonesia in the preceding decade.

For many Hazaras, waiting on the UN in Jakarta is perceived to be a better bet than risking a boat.

Lives under threat

When Sakhizada flew out of Kabul airport for Delhi on January 28 last year, he says he was not primarily concerned with where he would resettle. His first aim was to get a long way from Afghanistan.

“I felt that I could get killed at any time. Everything changes when it’s like that, your mind is not on the correct path,” he says.

Sakhizada’s work as an interpreter for the US military had made him a target for the Taliban. Afghan Hazaras, an ethnic minority who are Shiite, have also long been persecuted by members of the Pashtun majority, who are Sunni.

Sakhizada can’t bring himself to talk about what happened to his younger brothers and sisters on the night the Taliban came to kill him. But he says his mother was beaten and his father has not been seen again. The last time Sakhizada spoke to his father, he told him to flee through a first-floor window as armed men threatened to break down the front door of their home in Parwan province.

Conspicuous as a Hazara, and terrified of being re-identified by the Taliban’s network of spies, Sakhizada decided to leave the country immediately. After flying into Delhi, and after two months seeing no hope of forging a new life in India, Sakhizada weighed his options.

“The smugglers said that it was best for us to go to Indonesia. Perhaps we can carry on to Australia,” he says. “Along the way you meet a lot of people, and many of them were saying, ‘We are going to Australia, too’, and [that they would] go on by boat.”

Sakhizada paid to be flown on to Malaysia, where he was held in a locked room in Kuala Lumpur for five days before he crossed into Indonesia by boat. Talking to seven of Sakhizada’s friends it transpires that all of them took the same route, and all paid between $8000 and $12,500. All are Hazara.

Sakhizada had considered enlisting the services of people smugglers for the final leg of the journey – from the south coast of Java to Christmas Island. But after registering with the commission in early 2013 he changed his mind.

Under Operation Sovereign Borders the Australian government has turned asylum-seeker boats back into Indonesian waters since September. But while the Australian Navy has acted as “the stick” in disincentivising those willing to chance it with the people smugglers, “the carrot” has been less publicised.

A 2012 report by the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers to the government recommended an increase in resettlement places from UNHCR Indonesia as one means of shifting “the balance of risk” away from dangerous boat journeys.

Out of a total refugee and asylum seeker population of 10,466 registered with the commission in Indonesia, Australia currently accepts about 700 a year, about 70 per cent of whom are from Afghanistan.

Top priority

Abdullah, a 22-year-old Hazara, tells me Hazara Afghans come to Indonesia “because the UNHCR here is better. You get to go to Australia a lot faster here. You get processed a lot faster. But in Thailand or other countries the UNHCR isn’t that powerful or that good. A friend of mine was resettled about two months ago. He was here for about a year and a half, now he’s in Melbourne or Brisbane”.

The vulnerability of the Hazara in Afghanistan – for whom there is almost no hope of returning to their homeland – has made them a priority for the commission.

“In every room or gathering you hear about going to Australia by boat, but no one cares nowadays because, as you know, Australia isn’t accepting anyone by boat. So we don’t take that risk,” Abdullah says. “[Hazaras] stand a better chance of resettlement [through UNHCR].”

Although rights campaigners welcome any increase in the numbers of refugees being resettled, they are keen to stress that in the global context the numbers being accommodated between Indonesia and Australia remain very low.

Out of 2.6 million Afghan refugees, 1.6 million are being  hosted in Pakistan. Fewer than 1 per cent of refugees are resettled into a third country each year.

In effect the Hazara asylum-seeker community in Puncak is the consequence of an esoteric window of hope in the global resettlement system. Sakhizada and Abdullah are members of a tiny minority with enough money and knowledge, or perhaps faith, to arrive here.

Even with the better chances experienced by Hazaras, as years go by, the wait for resettlement can become too much to bear. Many are still prepared to risk their lives on a rickety boat ride to Australia.

For Sakhizada – who has been granted refugee status by the UNHCR, and has a realistic hope of resettlement – it is a challenge to remain optimistic about his situation. He is estranged from his family, surviving on offerings from refugee aid agencies.

“I can’t be mentally disorganised. It makes you more and more unhealthy. So because of this we [hold our own] English classes, we have sport, football, we have to do some activities,” he says.

“For a few minutes in the day you have to think about your life, your future, about what you’re going to do. But for the rest of the day you must try to enjoy life.”

Since this interview Sakhizada has been relocated to Medan by the International Organisation for Migration, which is helping to cover his living expenses. He hopes he will be resettled to a third country later this year.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 22, 2014 as "Taking the carrot". Subscribe here.

Jack Hewson
is a freelance journalist based in east Asia.