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Seeking Asylum in Australia, Refugees Find a Policy in Flux
Ed Wray for The International Herald Tribune -“In the minds of refugees, there are two options: You die on the boat, or you will go to Australia,” said Abdulkadir Abdi, right.
Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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In January, Naqsh Murtaza had had enough of war-torn Afghanistan. Mr. Naqsh, a 27-year-old Afghan, fled with his mother and two younger brothers across the border into Pakistan, the first stop on a risky journey whose ultimate destination was Australia.

He lacked the money to get the whole family there, so he hoped to reach Australia himself, obtain asylum and then send for them once he was settled.

Getting as far as Indonesia or Malaysia is relatively easy for Muslims like Mr. Naqsh. Lax visa restrictions make it relatively easy to enter the countries, and well-established smuggling networks pack asylum-seekers into boats to brave the sea crossing to Australian soil.

Like many of the rickety vessels, the boat carrying Mr. Naqsh foundered midway, and he had to be rescued by the Indonesian authorities; he never reached Australia. But it might not have mattered if he had.

Under a new policy announced by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on July 19 in the prelude to what is expected to be a close national election next month, anyone arriving by boat without a visa, the way Mr. Naqsh tried, is to be sent to a refugee-processing center in neighboring Papua New Guinea and be barred from ever settling in Australia. It is the most exclusionary measure the country has tried in hopes of stemming the tide of asylum-seekers, which has become a hot-button political issue.

The government advertised the new policy heavily in Australian newspapers and on television, aiming to reach immigrant populations that could spread the word in their countries of origin to friends and relatives who were contemplating fleeing to Australia.

But Australia’s history of policy flip-flops has left many migrants confused about what the rules are and has raised hopes in others that the latest policy, too, will be reversed. Misinformation, not least from the smugglers, has also undermined the effort to spread the word.

In Pakistan, Mr. Naqsh said, he looked into applying for asylum in Britain, Canada or the United States and was told it could take 5 or 10 years. Fellow Afghans in Pakistan told him Australia was a faster option. So he flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from Islamabad in June, and paid smugglers $2,000 to take him to Jakarta, and $3,200 to put him on a boat headed for Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.

He heard about the new Australian policy when he was holed up in a backpacker hostel in Jakarta waiting for a place on a boat. But the smuggler making his arrangements assured him that the new policy would not take effect until Aug. 14, and that he would not risk being transferred to Papua New Guinea as long as he landed on Christmas Island before then.

“Obviously, he lied,” Mr. Naqsh said.

The fishing boat carrying Mr. Naqsh and more than 70 Iranians, Pakistanis and other Afghans set sail July 28. Some of the refugees carried prepaid cellphones and the emergency numbers of Australian officials taken from government Web sites. A few days out from shore, a powerful storm damaged the boat, which began to sink slowly in international waters. The migrants and five crew members were picked up by the Indonesian National Search and Rescue Agency after 17 hours of desperate calls to the Australian authorities, who passed the word to their Indonesian counterparts.

The migrants were taken back to Indonesia, where they will be allowed to stay until the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees determines whether they qualify as bona fide refugees and not economic migrants.

Mr. Naqsh said he would not attempt another sea voyage and would instead hope to be resettled somewhere legally through the United Nations refugee agency.

He now faces a long wait in limbo. He cannot legally work in Indonesia, where there were already more than 10,000 asylum-seekers and official refugees waiting to be processed when he arrived, the agency said. Resettling a single person can take two to three years, according to the International Organization for Migration in Jakarta; since 2000, about 2,500 United Nations-registered refugees in Indonesia have been resettled.

To help press the message that would-be refugees should not make the attempt, the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship posted its radio and television advertisements on its Web site in at least eight languages, and it has released photographs of distraught recent arrivals to Christmas Island who were being told they were being deported to Papua New Guinea.

Sandi Logan, a spokesman for the department, said it was an uphill battle. “The constant recalibration of policies has left, frankly, many in the diaspora and particularly many for whom English is a second or third or fourth language, very perplexed,” he said.

It is unclear how much the new policy will deter migrants in the long-term. What is clear is that it has had little effect so far.

According to Australian officials, in the four weeks after Mr. Rudd’s announcement, 2,784 migrants arrived in, or tried to reach, Australia from Indonesia and elsewhere, nearly double the monthly average of 1,434 in 2012. They said 356 who reached Christmas Island had been sent to a camp on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

Some who set out after the announcement said they had not heard about it, including some survivors from a boat that left Indonesia on July 23 with more than 200 people from Iran and Sri Lanka and sank off the coast of West Java Province in Indonesia, killing at least 20.

Others who were fully aware of the new policy set out anyway. Abdulkadir Abdi, 28, a Somali refugee biding his time in Indonesia, saw a report about the policy on television. He said that some compatriots who also knew about it had sailed from the Indonesian port of Makassar on the night of July 31, headed for Christmas Island, and that he had not heard from any of them since they prepared to cast off.

Mr. Abdi, who had arrived in Indonesia in January 2011 expecting to attend a university only to learn that he had been defrauded by an “education agent” in Somalia, said he would have joined the group, but could not pay the smugglers’ fee.

“In the minds of refugees, there are two options: You die on the boat, or you will go to Australia,” Mr. Abdi said. As for the risk of being transferred to Papua New Guinea, he said, the thinking is, “maybe they won’t send me — policies can change.”

Joe Cochrane reported from Jakarta, and Matt Siegel from Sydney, Australia.


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