Monday, December 27, 2010
Asylum seekers risk boats because it is the only option
The so-called 'queue' where asylum seekers wait their turn is a myth.
As I was watching the horrific scenes of the recent Christmas Island boat tragedy, it reminded me of my own treacherous journey nine years ago.
In 2001, as a 20-year-old Afghan refugee, I made the perilous sea voyage from Indonesia towards Australia. I was one of 170 asylum seekers, including families and children, crammed into a small and leaky boat. On the third night, the engine suddenly went quiet. The boat was floating on the sea the whole night, but we had no control over it. Everyone on board thought they would die. Children were crying and moaning.
Pushed by the currents, we found ourselves aground the next morning. The bottom of the boat hit a rock. As the boat tilted, it seemed we were all about to be flung overboard. But the boat's crew, two Indonesians, threw out an anchor and managed to bring the boat level. They saved us from drowning. Unlike those who perished off Christmas Island, something else worked in our favour - the currents were not so strong.
Our boat, however, was severely damaged. For the next five days, our survival was pure chance, a void filled only by the prayers and hopes of everyone on board. To our joy and relief, we were finally intercepted by the Australian navy on Ashmore Reef.
Many of those who tried to get to Christmas Island were not so lucky, yet they were only metres from shore. I feel such strong sympathy with the survivors and their families who lost loved ones. We can't even begin to imagine the terrible impact this has on them.
The Christmas Island incident underlines how dangerous it is to come by boat. And, yet again, the questions are being asked: why on earth do asylum seekers make such treacherous journeys to Australia? Are they aware of the risk? Why are they not waiting in a queue for resettlement?
My experience as a former refugee will help answer some of these questions.
Many have perished on the way to Australia. Since 2001, more than 500 asylum seekers have died at sea. The SIEV X in October 2001 took the lives of 353 asylum seekers. Another boat carrying 105 asylum seekers disappeared at the end of 2009, their fate unknown.
I knew it was dangerous to come to Australia. In Indonesia, I became even more aware of the enormous danger of going by boat. It was then I heard about the boats breaking down and people being drowned.
However, going back to Afghanistan, from where I had fled, was not an option. It was almost a death sentence. The Taliban had control of 90 per cent of Afghanistan. They were notorious for imposing a fundamental and outdated version of Islam and butchering the Hazara ethnic group; I was a member of that group and thus an easy target.
In Indonesia, I heard stories of asylum seekers who had stayed for years, in shelters provided by the International Organisation for Migration, but their applications were not processed. There was only a slim chance that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees would process my application. Some of our fellow asylum seekers who had waited for years for the ''orderly'' process eventually became frustrated and decided to take the risky journey with us.
We knew the journey by boat was a last resort, and that we could lose our lives. The trauma of this journey has troubled many asylum seekers for years.
For most who leave their countries for safety, there is no choice other than a risky journey. The so-called ''queue'' in which asylum seekers wait for an orderly process in a third country is a myth. In Pakistan, where I spent some time as a refugee, the UNHCR accepted hardly any applications. Pakistan accommodated between 3 and 4 million Afghan refugees. There would have been an inundation of applications.
And why don't people simply apply to Australian consulates overseas? Australian posts overseas do not accept direct applications from a refugee applicant. You have to be referred by the UNHCR, a family member or a sponsor based in Australia. Many with extended family members who tried to sponsor their families were not successful through the normal process. Some of those who came by boat have exhausted all other possibilities. They are forced to alternatives with disastrous consequences for their lives.
Think about Madian El Ibrahimy, whose wife and their two children drowned in the Christmas Island boat disaster. He was in an Australian detention centre waiting for his visa but not knowing when or if it would come. His wife could not wait any longer to be with him and so made the perilous journey with their children.
People who come to Australia by boat are ordinary families torn apart by war. They are so desperate they take high risks, but they have no alternative.
By Abdul Karim Hekmat freelance writer and youth worker (Sydney Morning Herald)