Stuck in the Middle, Asylum Seekers Hold On to Their Dreams

Asylum seekers from Bangladesh, Iran, Nepal and Pakistan gather at a hotel in Tasikmalaya, West Java, in this file photo, after they were turned back at sea by the Australian Navy in a failed attempt to reach Christmas Island. (AFP Photo/Bustomi)

By : Kate Davidson & Poppy Saker-Norrish | on 10:22 AM February 12, 2014
Category : News, Editor's Choice, Featured, Human Rights

INDONESIA-AUSTRALIA-REFUGEE-IMMIGRATION Asylum seekers from Bangladesh, Iran, Nepal and Pakistan gather at a hotel in Tasikmalaya, West Java, after they were turned back at sea by the Australian Navy in a failed attempt to reach Christmas Island. (AFP Photo/Bustomi)

Jakarta. One young man wakes up each day in Jakarta wondering if his family members in Quetta, Pakistan, have been murdered because they belong to the Hazara ethnic group.

Hamzad, not his real name, fled Pakistan searching for a life in a country where he could find peace and safety from those trying to destroy his people.

He survived a bomb attack in Quetta, was nearly killed while trying to return to his father’s homeland in Afghanistan, and fled to Indonesia to try to reach Australia when the boat he was on capsized.

He clung to life for over 40 hours until he was pulled from the water with harrowing memories of others who perished around him.

And he has not yet reached 20.

He is an asylum seeker. A young man fleeing persecution looking for place of peace and safety — which is within his legal rights under international law.

He is one of many Hazara who have fled Pakistan. Since the turn of the century, Sunni terrorist groups in Pakistan have openly waged war against Hazaras, killing them unmercifully and openly admitting it without fear of retribution or justice.

Hamzad’s family first fled Afghanistan in 1998 after his father was killed by the Taliban. His uncle took his family to Quetta where a large Hazara community lives. It was after he survived the bomb attack, left unconscious and scarred on one arm, that his family realized they could no longer stay under the constant threat of death.

For Hamzad there was only one option: To travel south and try make it to Australia, despite the risks.

“We don’t know when they will attack our homes. We are facing death,” he says. “If we die [on the journey] we can still say we tried to live peacefully, we tried to go a country to live peacefully there.”

No hope to return

At first he and his mother thought it might be possible to return to the land they had left behind in Afghanistan. Hamzad and his uncle reached their former village, but were awoken that night by armed, masked men pounding on the doors. They escaped through a barn and were forced to return to Pakistan.

Their land had been claimed by others and there was no hope for a return.

He sold the family jewels and despite not speaking a word of Indonesian, contacted a smuggler and flew to Indonesia. He was put in contact with another smuggler, paid $5,000 in cash and in 2012 joined a group of refugees on a boat hoping to reach Australia. He took along an inner tube, having heard of boats sinking during the deadly crossing.

He estimates there were 170 on board when his boat went down. Only 55 would be pulled from the water alive. He watched helplessly as new friends and children died around him.

As they waited in the waters, the surviving refugees tried to keep themselves sane as they were deprived of food and fresh drinking water.

After 40 hours, Hamzad and the others were pulled from the water by the Australian navy, which took them back to the south coast of Java.

From there he was put up in a hotel in Bandung for a month.

Unaccompanied minor

Back on dry land, Hamzad was allowed to call his family just once, just for a minute to let them know he was alive. He was then placed in detention for 11 months.

At the time he was a minor, but like many others was crammed in with adults. While Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is a party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, under which the country is obliged to provide unaccompanied children with guardians. Human Rights Watch has criticized the Indonesian government for failing to do so as without guardians children have to stay in detention, unable to be released without a carer.

Hamzad questions why minors are not given separate accommodation when they are threatened by adults.

“It was not good for us,” he says shaking his head. “We have to face the same food every day: rice, rice, rice. Every day when we awake also we see the cell. We just feel that we are inside a prison.”

He says the minors asked for separate accommodation but were ignored.

“Many times we sent a letter to organizations to take us out of the detention center or at least give us another room so we could at least protect ourselves," he says. "There was no response.”

He got through by teaching English. Others were not so lucky. He says some boys would cower in the corner, crying with no family or support. They needed protection, support and education.

“We had many problems with the adults there because they did not respect us," he says. "You are a child, a minor, so they can defeat us. They are using their powers in a bad way for many of us.”

'We did nothing'

As Hamzad talks of the injustice he has seen, his frustration spills out.

“We did nothing. For nothing we are just spending our lives inside a prison. For nothing. Just because we are asylum seekers and we want peace we have to be put in prison. It’s really hard,” he says.

He finds it difficult to understand the differences in waiting time for visa approval while watching his friends struggle for months in detention.

But in the past two years, with a substantial increase in the number of asylum seekers in Indonesia, the time taken to finalize refugee status for each person has been longer and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has had to prioritize the most vulnerable groups, such as women, children, the elderly and the disabled.

After 11 months, Hamzad was released into the community.

Now, awaiting resettlement in a third country, he spends his time studying Indonesian, which he speaks fluently, and is working toward his English teaching certificate.

The young refugee is brave and determined. When asked how he manages to deal with so much hardship and trauma at such a young age, he replies that his struggle is part of an Afghani’s life from birth.

“For us, from childhood to now we are just passing many problems, many problems. We have seen people dying, they are killing our people in front of us,” he says. “We cannot do anything about this. Many problems we have faced like this so now our bodies have become like stone. We have to. We cannot do anything.”

There are moments when the pain is reflected in his eyes. He says often he wishes his father was still alive, that he was like other young people.

“I was looking at these boys going to university in their cars with their mom and dad and I dream for this, but I knew it would never happen,” Hamzad says.

He has a younger brother, two sisters in their early twenties, and his mother. His love and concern for his family is apparent. They knew the journey to Australia was risky, but he could not put his loved ones through it. He went first in the hope of establishing himself and then arranging for them to come over legally.

He says countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States know the plight of the Hazara but choose to ignore it.

“They are using their politics. They are not sympathetic to asylum seekers and immigrants,” Hamzad says.

“We have a lot of problems, but we have to face them because we don’t have any other solutions. We have to wait and see the policy of the countries and see if they are taking us. We have to wait.”

Hamzad has no expectations of the Indonesian government and feels no resentment toward it. It is a country with many of its own challenges.

“What can you expect from this government? Many of the people you see are poor. They cannot help their own people so how can they help us?” he points out.

He makes it clear he is not an economic refugee, as some Australian politicians have labeled those seeking asylum. He had enough food and work in Quetta; the community supported each other. The problem was security — he survived the bomb attack while working in the bazaar.

“There is no peace because they [terrorists] are killing us, how can we live there?”

His brother dresses as a Pashtun when he leaves his home for work, concealing his identity to avoid being targeted.

“Sometimes I get angry with God and no one else because no one can help me. I ask ‘Why did you let me come to this world? If you allowed me to come in this world, why have you given me such a life?’ I did nothing and I have to be in prison.”

For multilingual Hamzad “the best solution for life is to get an education.” He hopes to study IT when he reaches his destination country.

He is a young man of potential. If he had been born in the right country, he would be fulfilling that potential now. He was just unlucky to born at the wrong time in the wrong place, unlucky not to have the choices others take for granted.

“We don’t have the choice of where we can go. We just want peace. We just want to live peacefully,” he says.

Problem growing

Hamzad’s story is far from unique. Increasingly, the tales of migrant and asylum seeker children in Indonesia include cases of extensive detention, abusive conditions and neglect.

And the problem is growing. The number of asylum-seeker cases crossing the desk of the UNHCR in Indonesia has increased 2,000 percent since 2008. In 2012 alone, 1,178 unaccompanied children entered the country.

But this figure includes only those who chose to register with the UNHCR. The actual number is likely much higher, with many opting to try their luck on a perilous boat journey rather than face interminable waits that are inescapable in the current system.

Many of these children — primarily from Afghanistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar — are detained in Indonesia for months or even years. Conditions have in some cases proved fatal. Children often face physical abuse at the hands of the guards or the unrelated adults with whom they are forced to share living space.

The food is monotonous and lacks the nutrition needed by the growing. Many institutions lack water and basic sanitation, and adequate bedding is a rarity.

Faced with this trauma at such a young age, there are increasing reports of post-traumatic stress disorder and generally deteriorating mental health linked to prolonged detention.

But with limited access to sufficient health care — or even a phone to communicate with family — many of these children fall into heavy depression.

Indonesia is duty-bound under the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child to provide unaccompanied children with guardians. However, a government entity has yet to be assigned the task. Without a guardian, these children are defenseless and risk remaining in these toxic conditions for up to 10 years without judicial review.

Those living on the street are in constant fear of arrest or rearrest. Education options are limited, and with no official legal status, it is impossible to work and earn a living. As a result, they are highly vulnerable to exploitation by smugglers.

Like Hamzad, the majority of these children are not leaving home purely to better their economic situation. They are escaping because they have no choice.

They are victims, now trapped in a dangerous limbo where they feel there is more certainty in a dangerous boat trip than in a future in Indonesia.

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