“We’ll risk death at sea – but not if the door is closed”


Asylum-seekers will continue to flood across the sea on rickety boats unless the Australian government slams the door on them. Afghan asylum-seeker Mohammad Ali told The Australian yesterday that he would happily buy clandestine passages to Australia for himself, his wife and his two young children if he had the money.

He said the growing stream of asylum-seekers making the voyage south would not slow until the Australian government started sending asylum-seekers offshore for processing. “If Australia announced the door is closed, the people will stop going there,” he said.

Ali has already risked his life on a leaky-boat voyage from Malaysia to Indonesia. And like their parents, even children dream of a new life outside Indonesia’s asylum-seeker enclaves. Ali Esmaili, a 13-year-old Iraqi and one of Mohammad Ali’s pupils in English classes, shrugged off the dangers of the voyages. “I want to go somewhere, anywhere, the US, Canada, Australia,” he said, standing outside the makeshift classroom in Cisarua, an asylum-seeker enclave in the rolling hills south of Jakarta.

Demand for places on the clandestine voyages is still strong, unaffected by the recent sinking of two boats and the drowning deaths of dozens of asylum-seekers.

The arrival of three boats in Australian waters over the last 24 hours underscores the fact that fear alone will not deter asylum-seekers desperate for a new life, and willing to pay extortionate fees for their passage.

Ali knew a man who was on the boat that sank less than a fortnight ago, leaving 90 or more believed drowned – many of the dead began their voyage from Cisarua. Hundreds of asylum-seekers live in the district, waiting for either the UN to settle them elsewhere, or waiting until they have scraped together sufficient funds for the voyage to Australia. Like many of his compatriots in Indonesia, Ali is a Hazara, a routinely persecuted ethnic minority in Afghanistan. Returning to his native land is not an option for him.

News of the two asylum-seeker boats that have capsized and sunk in recent weeks spread quickly through the asylum-seeker community in Cisarua. Ali teaches English to children and adults in a small housing complex, and his pupils readily recounted the facts and dates of the boat sinkings – accepting the tragedy as a normal part of life. They all knew people who have made the voyage to Australia. Nada Bahrami, an 11-year-old Afghan girl who has lived in Indonesia since she was a baby, said she knew one group of her friends had arrived safely because she saw it on Facebook.

Varying between $4,000 and $8,000, depending on the seaworthiness of the boat and how much Indonesian police have been paid off, the prices of fares to Australia net people-smugglers enormous profits. The fees used to be paid in cash, but now it is understood that most asylum-seekers pay only a small down-payment in cash, usually between $500 and $1000, and the rest is given to trusted third party who pays the balance on the asylum-seekers’ safe arrival in Australia.

“The Australian politicians talk and the price goes up and down,” Mohammad Ali said. “The price will go down when the Australian government says the door is closed to asylum-seekers”.

People-smugglers’ perfidy is a favourite topic of conversation in Cisarua. Ewas Bahrami, from Afghanistan, said it was well known that a local mafia runs the voyages, raking off huge profits. He tried to make the voyage to Australia once, but the boat was so old it began to sink. “There are many mafia here, from Afghanistan, from Iraq; many mafia here,” he said. The flood of asylum-seekers was almost inexhaustible, he added, and people-smugglers didn’t have to be too concerned about satisfying their customers. “Every day new people come. They come here for what? To go on a ship.”

Ali said the boats usually used by people-smugglers were “very old, almost finished”. They are worn fishing boats, he said, that could carry a reasonable weight, but if at least 100 people were packed on board, the total weight would be more than 7,500 kilograms. The smugglers, he said, knew people were concerned about the boats, and routinely lied about the number of passengers who would be on board, doubling or trebling the totals. Passengers embarking in the middle of the night had little recourse, he said. “The smugglers never tell the truth.”