Australia: Why boat people risk it all

Detainees, including children, are packed behind bars in Jakarta

Every year, thousands of asylum seekers leave Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Iran to make the dangerous and illegal journey across the oceans to get to Australia.

They pay thousands of dollars to people smugglers. Many never make it, and often end up in detention centres in so-called "transit" countries like Indonesia, where they wait for their fate to be decided.

On 23 July, a rickety wooden boat carrying asylum seekers bound for Australia sank 10km (6 miles) off the coast of the Indonesian island of Java.

As many as 20 people are thought to have died, including at least six children. Nearly 200 others were pulled from the sea, exhausted, frightened and shocked.

Fariba (not her real name), 27, was one of the survivors.

Australia candidates on asylum

Labor leader Kevin Rudd

  • Instituted a new asylum policy as prime minister
  • Under the agreement in July, asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia will be sent to Papua New Guinea for processing
  • Those found to be refugees will be settled in PNG, which receives Australian investment in return
  • The programme will be for 12 months and will be subject to review on an annual basis

Opposition leader Tony Abbott

  • Military commander would lead operations tackling people smugglers and asylum boats
  • Refugees would not be granted residency but limited to temporary visas valid for three years
  • Those on temporary visas would be required to work for welfare benefits
  • People denied refugee status would have no right to appeal against the decision

Like many on board, she comes from Iran. She is of Arab descent, from Khuzestan province, and says her community is the target of anti-Arab discrimination in Iran.

She did not want to be identified because she is worried about the repercussions she may face back in her home country if she has to return.

"I lost everything," she said. "I lost my passport, I lost my money, I lost everything I have in the water."

She flew to Indonesia because she was told in Iran that this was the best place to find a boat to get to Australia.

"In Indonesia airport, somebody told us if you want to go to Australia, I will help you to go," she said.

She paid a total of $17,000 (£10,900) to a people smuggler in Indonesia for her family to get on the boat.

Blame game

Activists and asylum seekers say that corrupt Indonesian officials double up as agents for people smugglers, pocketing huge amounts of cash from desperate refugees.

The authorities deny these allegations. Indonesia's immigration enforcement chief Ida Bagus Adnyana told the BBC that Indonesian officials were not at fault.

Ida Bagus Adnyana, head of Indonesia's immigration enforcement agency Indonesia's immigration enforcement chief Ida Bagus Adnyana talks to BBC

"I can't deny the possibility that there are certain groups in Indonesia who facilitate these people smugglers - people like fishermen who can be paid or persuaded by people smugglers to let them use their boats," he said.

"But there's no proof that anyone from the Indonesian immigration services is involved in these operations.

"On the contrary, our officials in the field have been extraordinary when it comes to helping asylum seekers in distress, even though we have no legal responsibility to do so."

Indonesia has not signed the UN Convention on Refugees.

Critics say that this allows Indonesia to wash its hands of the matter.

But the government says it has gone above and beyond the call of duty by housing thousands of asylum seekers in detention centres while they wait to be processed by the UNHCR.

Fleeing persecution

The BBC was given exclusive access to a detention centre in Jakarta, where we met dozens of men and women with similar stories to Fariba.

Detainees, including children, are packed like sardines behind bars. One child was wailing as his mother tried to quiet him. She told me she had been in there for more than a month, with no sense of when she would be released or processed.

Rescuers assist survivors arriving on fishing boat at the wharf of Cidaun, West Java on 24 July 2013 after an Australia-bound boat carrying asylum seekers sank off the Indonesian coast Many boats carrying asylum seekers run into trouble on the way to Australia

Another woman, from Sri Lanka, clutched her swollen belly and said she had arrived in the detention centre when she was two months pregnant. She is now in her second trimester, just weeks away from delivering her baby.

The process to determine whether or not you are a genuine refugee is unpredictable to say the least.

But asked if they would make the same risky journey again, they all say yes. Many are fleeing persecution at home, and say taking the chance to get a better life for their families is worth the risk.

Ali (not his real name) is an ethnic Hazara from Afghanistan.

Map of Christmas Island

"Australia thinks that asylum seekers choose to be asylum seekers," he said.

"We didn't choose this life. Our families are in danger. You put yourself in our place and you would have done the same."

I asked him whether he knew about Australia's new policy, that even if a boat made it to Australia, the people on board would be sent to Papua New Guinea for processing, and that could take years.

Ali shrugs.

"I've already been here for one year. Sometimes we feel that we are forgotten. I may end up here for three or four years. But I have no choice.

"If I had to do it again, yes I would take another boat to get to Australia."

The desperation and hopelessness in the detention centre is palpable. Everyone wanted to tell their story, although many were fearful of jeopardising their bid for refugee status.

None of the detainees had any idea when or if they will ever get that coveted refugee title - their first step towards moving on to a better life in Australia.

Until then, all they can be certain of is an unpredictable future.

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