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When 27-year-old human rights lawyer Jessie Taylor, travelled to Indonesia to research the state of detention centres for a documentary in July 2009, she came across countless stories of desperation and persecution. But nothing could compare to a chance encounter with a 14 year old young man named Jaffar in an Indonesian jail.
Jessie recalls how he looked straight at her and begged, “Can you help me?” but she knew, sadly, there was nothing she could do. Yet, in one of those beautiful moments of compassion and human connection, she scribbled down her phone number on a piece of paper and said, “If you make it to Australia, call me and I’ll look after you.”
Well, Jaffar managed to escape and find his way to a people smuggler who put him onto a boat with some 80 other men, women and children, making the dangerous 10 day journey across the seas. And, as hundreds of rickety boats before this one, the small, unsound vessel made it to Australian waters. In a military style operation, Australian border protection staff boarded the boat and allocated each of the passengers a three digit identifying code before escorting them to an Australian Maritime vessel. Welcome to Australia! Take a number.
Jaffar, just like the hundreds of “boat people” who arrive each year, would have been sick, vomiting, dehydrated, cold and exhausted. Not to mention suffering tremendous psychological damage that comes with crossing risky borders, and being thousands of miles from his parents and two younger brothers.
On Christmas Island, he was taken into a room. The door closed and two Australian Federal Police officers began the interrogation. They had searched him and discovered the crumpled note with a name and a phone number. “Where did you get this?” Jaffar was so scared that he would get Jessie into trouble. He had no understanding of the laws in this foreign country. Not that he hadn’t seen jails or detention before. They had become a part of his life now in his bid for survival.
But one thing that was certain, is that Jaffar would have had little comprehension of the idea of justice, having been raised in Afghanistan where, several years earlier, the Taliban had shot dead his older brother and sister on the doorstep of his house. In front of his parents. His father, desperate and in immense pain that only a grieving parent knows, said, “I cannot bear to see another one of my children die.” He gave Jaffar all the money he had and said, “Go. Try and find safety. One day we may see you again.”