Over 1,000 Refugees Have Died Trying to Reach Christmas Island, Yet They Keep Coming

Photographs by JOEL VAN HOUDT

By Luke Mogelson on November 15, 2013 for The New York Times Magazine—
“It’s about a two-and-a-half-hour drive, normally, from Indonesia’s capital city, Jakarta, to the southern coast of Java. In one of the many trucks that make the trip each month, loaded with asylum seekers from the Middle East and Central Asia, it takes a little longer. From the bed of the truck, the view is limited to a night sky punctuated by fleeting glimpses of high-rise buildings, overpasses, traffic signs and tollbooths. It is difficult to make out, among the human cargo, much more than the vague shapes of bodies, the floating tips of cigarettes. When you pass beneath a street lamp, though, or an illuminated billboard, the faces thrown into relief are all alive with expectation. Eventually, the urban pulse subsides; the commotion of the freeway fades. The drooping wires give way to darkly looming palms. You begin to notice birds, and you can smell the sea.

In September, in one of these trucks, I sat across from a recently married couple in their 20s, from Tehran. The wife, who was seven months pregnant, wore a red blouse stretched over her stomach; the husband a tank top, thick-rimmed glasses and a faux hawk that revealed a jagged scar (courtesy, he said, of the Iranian police). Two months had passed since they flew to Jakarta; this was their fourth attempt to leave. Twice, en route to the boat that would bring them to Australia, they were intercepted, detained and paid bribes for their release. Another time, the boat foundered shortly after starting out. All the same, they were confident this trip would be different. Like everyone else’s in the truck, theirs was a desperate kind of faith. “Tonight we will succeed,” the husband assured me. They were determined that the child be born “there.”

Our drive coincided with a violent tropical downpour that seemed to surge, under pressure, more than fall. Each asylum seeker had brought a small bag with spare clothes and provisions. Those who packed slickers dug them out. The storm was amusing at first, then just cold and miserable. The children, who earlier delighted in our clandestine exit from the city, now clung to their parents. An old man, sitting cross-legged beside me with a plastic garbage bag on his head, shivered uncontrollably, muttering prayers.

Around 3 in the morning, the truck braked and reversed down a rutted dirt road. The rain had stopped as abruptly as it started. No one spoke. We knew we had arrived. The rear hatch swung open, and we piled out. A second truck was parked behind us; people were emerging from it as well. We were in a dense jungle whose tangled canopy obstructed the moon. Several Indonesians corralled the crowd and whispered fiercely to keep moving. “Go! Go!” they urged in English. The road led down a steep hill and ended at a narrow footpath. As people stumbled in the dark, the Indonesians prodded them along. At the bottom of the footpath was a beach. It appeared as a pale hue through the trees, its white sand giving off a glow. The asylum seekers, 57 of them, huddled at the jungle’s edge.

We were in the shelter of a wide bay, its arcing headlands, dotted with lights, repulsing the windward waves. Two open-hull skiffs with outboard motors idled offshore, bobbing gently in the swells. Behind us, the clamor of the truck grew distant and was gone. Suddenly, the Indonesians began pushing people toward the sea.

“You, you. Go!”

Two at a time, the asylum seekers raised their bags above their heads and waded out. The cool water rose to waists and armpits. It was a struggle to climb aboard. Whenever someone had to be hauled up, the skiff pitched steeply, threatening to tip.

We were ferried to a wooden fishing boat: a more substantial vessel than the skiffs, though not much. About 30 feet long, with open decks, a covered bow, a one-man cockpit and a bamboo tiller, it was clearly not designed for passengers. Noting the absence of cabin, bridge, bulkheads and benches, I wondered whether anyone else shared my deluded hope: that there was another, larger ship anchored somewhere farther out, and that this sad boat was merely to convey us there.

With frantic miming, the two-man Indonesian crew directed us to crowd together on the deck and crouch beneath the bulwarks. They stretched a tarp above our heads and nailed its edges to the gunwales. Packed close in the ripe air beneath the tarp, hugging knees to chests, we heard the engine start and felt the boat begin to dip and rise.

Our destination was an Australian territory, more than 200 miles across the Indian Ocean, called Christmas Island. If the weather is amenable, if the boat holds up, the trip typically lasts three days. Often, however, the weather is tempestuous, and the boat sinks. Over the past decade, it is believed that more than a thousand asylum seekers have drowned. The unseaworthy vessels are swamped through leaky hulls, capsize in heavy swells, splinter on the rocks. Survivors sometimes drift for days. Children have watched their parents drown, and parents their children. Entire families have been lost. Since June, several boats went down, claiming the lives of more than a hundred people.

I first heard about the passage from Indonesia to Australia in Afghanistan, where I live and where one litmus test for the success of the U.S.-led war now drawing to a close is the current exodus of civilians from the country. (The first “boat people” to seek asylum in Australia were Vietnamese, in the mid-1970s, driven to the ocean by the fallout from that American withdrawal.) Last year, nearly 37,000 Afghans applied for asylum abroad, the most since 2001. Afghans who can afford to will pay as much as $24,000 for European travel documents and up to $40,000 for Canadian. (Visas to the United States, generally, cannot be bought.) Others employ smugglers for arduous overland treks from Iran to Turkey to Greece, or from Russia to Belarus to Poland.

The Indonesia-Australia route first became popular in Afghanistan before Sept. 11, mostly among Hazaras, a predominantly Shiite ethnic minority that was systematically brutalized by the Taliban. After the Taliban were overthrown, many refugees, anticipating an enduring peace, returned to Afghanistan, and for a while the number of Afghans willing to risk their lives at sea declined. But by late 2009 — with Afghans, disabused of their optimism, fleeing once more — migration to Australia escalated. At the same time, Hazaras living across the border in Pakistan, many of whom moved there from Afghanistan, have also found relocation necessary. In a sectarian crusade of murder and terror being waged against them by Sunni extremists, Hazara civilians in the Pakistani city of Quetta are shot in the streets, executed en masse and indiscriminately massacred by rockets and bombs.

In 2010, a suicide attacker killed more than 70 people at a Shiite rally in Quetta. Looming directly above the carnage was a large billboard paid for by the Australian government. In Dari, next to an image of a distressed Indonesian fishing boat carrying Hazara asylum seekers, read the words: “All illegal routes to Australia are closed to Afghans.” The billboard was part of a wide-ranging effort by Australia to discourage refugees from trying to get to Christmas Island. In Afghanistan, a recent Australian-funded TV ad featured a Hazara actor rubbing his eyes before a black background. “Please don’t go,” the man gloomily implores over melancholic music. “Many years of my life were wasted there [in detention] until my application for asylum was rejected.” In addition to the messaging campaign (and the hard-line policies it alludes to), Australia has worked to disrupt smuggling networks by collaborating with Pakistan’s notorious intelligence services, embedding undercover agents in Indonesia and offering up to $180,000 for information resulting in a smuggler’s arrest. The most drastic deterrence measure was introduced this July, when the Australian prime minister at the time, Kevin Rudd, announced that henceforth no refugee who reaches Australia by boat would be settled there. Instead, refugees would be detained, and eventually resettled, in impoverished Papua New Guinea. Several weeks later, the resettlement policy was extended to a tiny island state in Micronesia called the Republic of Nauru.

Since then, there have been more boats, more drownings. In late September, a vessel came apart shortly after leaving Indonesia, and dozens of asylum seekers — from Lebanon, Iran and Iraq — drowned. That people are willing to hazard death at sea despite Australia’s vow to send them to places like Papua New Guinea and the Republic of Nauru would seem illogical — or just plain crazy. The Australian government ascribes their persistence partly to misinformation propagated by the smugglers. But every asylum seeker who believes those lies believes them because he chooses to. Their doing so, and continuing to brave the Indian Ocean, and continuing to die, only illustrates their desperation in a new, disturbing kind of light. This is the subtext to the plight of every refugee: Whatever hardship he endures, he endures because it beats the hardship he escaped. Every story of exile implies the sadder story of a homeland.”

For the rest of this original article, please click here.

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