Friday, October 9, 2009

Refugees Know Kevin Rudd Has Opened the Door

SOME are stuck, their spirits broken and their money gone. They are unable to move. Others are just waiting for the right deal and are ready to make the journey at a moment's notice.

At the mountain resort town of Puncak, two hours south of Jakarta, an estimated 400 Iraqis and Afghans, including Naghmeh and her son Milad, are scattered about in rundown inns and hotels. Most of them barely know each other but they are united by a common obsession - getting to Australia. The Indonesian authorities know they are here, as do the Australian government and agencies such as the International Organisation for Migration and the UN High Commission for Refugees.

Most of them are registered as refugees with the UNHCR, and are waiting and praying for legal settlement in countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
But they say the UN moves too slowly for them. Those with the money will take their chances with the people-smugglers and book a passage on an Indonesian boat to Ashmore Reef or to Christmas Island - anywhere, as long as it is within Australian waters.

There is a surge happening, with 10boats, carrying 542 passengers and crew, arriving in Australian waters last month alone. Another boat, carrying 55 people, was intercepted
yesterday near Ashmore Reef. Observers say it is either an organic spike, or it may be that people have chosen to move before the monsoon weather sets in.
But all the people The Weekend Australian spoke to were sure of the new ground rules in Australia - that is, that anyone who makes it to Australian waters will, if they pass the health and security checks, be on the mainland with a visa within 90 days.
The Howard government's Pacific Solution is dead, and they know it.

That is why Australian police are working in Indonesia trying to encourage people to turn back before they arrive in Australian waters. In places such as Sri Lanka, the source of a recent wave of boatpeople after the civil war, Australia is using street theatre to spread its message about the dangers and illegality of the journey in an effort to deter people-smugglers and those who use them. In Colombo, the first failed asylum-seekers to be forcibly deported by the Rudd government, including Stanley Warnakulasuriya, face an uncertain future.

Australia funds the IOM to accommodate irregular arrivals in places such as Puncak, and to offer them the opportunity to volunteer for free repatriation. Few take it. The IOM's best estimate is that there are several thousand Afghans and Iraqis in Indonesia, trying to find a route south.

Migration experts in Indonesia dismiss the notion that there is a "snake-head" - that is, a major international criminal syndicate moving Afghans and Iranians from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iran to Australia.

The Australian Federal Police are working on a training program with Indonesian police to tackle the irregular migrants, as they are called in Indonesia, but it's a battle. They have identified 12 key departure points across Indonesia, but these are only temporary. Once the heat is on, the smugglers just shift location.

The Indonesian navy last month intercepted a boatload of 70 Afghans headed for Australia. They were put in a low-security detention centre on the island of Lombok. On the evening of September 23, during Ramadan, their guards were elsewhere or were looking the other way (during Ramadan, you are required to be kind to all people).
They walked out the door and have now broken up into smaller, less conspicuous groups and have scattered across the islands. They will presumably try again.
During 2000 and 2001, the time of the Tampa crisis, women and children were making the journey. Now it is almost exclusively men, who hope to settle and bring their families afterwards.

They know little about Australian politics, but they do know something has changed. And that it is not hard to become an Australian if you can only make the crossing.
Exclusive: Paul Toohey, Puncak, Indonesia The Australian Saturday, October 10, 2009

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