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Bound for a Land Down Under
It takes roughly seven days to sail from the southern shore of the Indonesian island of Java to Ashmore Reef, a low-slung speck of Australian territory surrounded by turquoise waters. Such relatively short distances to a country long seen as a safe haven are what drew thousands of asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iraq to Indonesia last year. But it wasn't Jakarta they were bound for; it was Sydney.
Of those who made it to Australian territory, either by air or by boat, around 2,000 were granted asylum. But most refugees never see the southern continent's coast. Instead, they end up in places like the immigration detention center at Tanjung Pinang, a town on Bintan island, just over two hours by air from Jakarta. The largest of 15 such centers spread throughout the Indonesian archipelago, it can hold up to 600 detainees at a time. In January there were 96; by late June the number had shot up to over 420. Among them is 34-year-old Sayed Nadir Besharat, an Afghan who describes his work as a radio operator and interpreter for U.S. special forces in Kandahar and Kabul, and says he fled after the Taliban killed a close friend and threatened him. As with many inmates, before Besharat could reach Australia, where he had heard more refugees were being accepted, his boat was stopped in Indonesian waters. "We are not criminals," he says, sitting in a cell amid a cluster of Afghans. "We came here to get to another place, but we are in cages."
The facility has some comforts there are regular doctor visits, TVs, a volleyball net and three filling if monotonous meals a day. ("Rice, rice, rice, rice, rice," laments Besharat.) It's more than many Indonesians get. But a poor country like Indonesia can ill afford to spend much on refugees. The meals and amenities along with the cheerful coat of yellow paint and potted plants at the reception are provided by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), paid for with a healthy dose of Australian government aid.
Today, 147 countries have agreed to international standards for processing people who claim asylum at their borders, but Indonesia is not among them. It does not have laws distinguishing asylum seekers from illegal immigrants. In fact, while most of Europe, Africa and Latin America has signed the 1951 treaty, only a handful of Asian nations recognize global refugee rights, even though millions under the UNHCR's mandate are in the region. This year in Bangladesh, aid groups reported violent police crackdowns and widespread hunger in makeshift camps housing tens of thousands of Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority facing persecution in Burma, who have crossed into Bangladesh seeking protection. In 2009, human rights groups accused the Thai military of setting hundreds of Rohingya refugees adrift at sea without adequate supplies. Thailand which like Indonesia and Bangladesh has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention but generously hosted many refugees after the Vietnam War came under scrutiny again in December when the government forcibly repatriated 4,000 Hmong asylum seekers to Laos. The same month, Cambodia bowed to economic pressure from its largest benefactor and sent 20 Uighur asylum seekers back to China after they had fled race riots a move that sparked international outcry and has since prompted the U.S. to cut off some aid to Phnom Penh. In Asia, "refugees are seen as political pawns," says Frelick of Human Rights Watch. "The idea that you would provide asylum to a person who is considered an enemy of [another] state is looked upon as an unfriendly act."
As the numbers trying to transit through Indonesia to Australia have risen, so have tensions between neighboring states over who should be responsible for them. "Indonesia is not the backyard of Australia," says Sujatmiko, director for diplomatic security service for Indonesia's Department of Foreign Affairs. "We are not the garbage bin." In January, every immigration detention center in Indonesia was full except Tanjung Pinang, and, he adds, "The rest are not in good condition."
For Canberra, the influx of illegal boat arrivals has become political toxin. Though Australia has a generous refugee resettlement program, the government temporarily suspended asylum applications from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan in April as illegal boat arrivals have been on the rise. This year, the Australian navy had intercepted more than 70 illegal boats in its waters by late June. They were carrying over 3,200 asylum seekers hoping to be processed at the offshore immigration center on Christmas Island, another remote piece of Australian territory. As Christmas Island has grown crowded, tents have been set up to accommodate the overflow and the government has been seeking alternate spots on the mainland to house new arrivals, including a remote former mining camp, drawing criticism from both pro- and anti-immigration groups. But to Andrew Bartlett, a former Australian Senator and a campaigner for asylum seekers, inadequate facilities are far less of a problem than the time it takes to process refugee claims. "You could keep them in a luxury resort," he says, "but if they don't know what's going on ... that's what drives them mad eventually."