Undercover journalists have published a first hand account of the epic asylum seeker journey from Indonesia to Christmas Island.
The two New York Times Magazine journalists paid $4000 each for a harrowing open-decked wooden boat voyage that delivered 57 desperate people to Christmas Island.
The boat of mainly Iranian asylum seekers arrived on the day after the Abbott government was elected and given the now bipartisan determination that boat people never be settled here were dispatched to either Papua New Guinea or Nauru.
Luke Mogelson lives in Afghanistan and he and his photographer, Dutch photojournalist Joel van Houdt were at sea for three days. They posed as Georgian refugees, named Levan” and “Mikheil” with sensitive information about the government’s activities during the 2008 war.
After flying to Jakarta, they were taken to the 23rd storey of a tower bock on the northern edge of the city. About 30 more asylum seekers lived in these flats. Most were Iranians.
“They were builders, drivers, shopkeepers, barbers. One man claimed to be a mullah; another, an accomplished engineer. Their reasons for leaving varied. They all complained about the government and its chokehold on their freedoms. A few said they had been targeted for political persecution….They were fathers who despaired of their children’s futures, or they wanted children but refused to have them in Iran. The most common word they used to describe their lives back home was na-aomid — hopeless.”
He writes of how the asylum seekers, after being told of the new bipartisan policy not to settle them in Australia, refused to believe they would be turned away.
“What they had to look forward to instead — after the perilous voyage, and after months, maybe years, locked up in an isolated detention center — was resettlement on the barren carcass of a defunct strip mine, more than 70 percent of which is uninhabitable (Nauru), or resettlement on a destitute and crime-ridden island nation known for its high rates of murder and sexual violence (Papua New Guinea). How do you tell that to someone who has severed himself utterly from his country, in order to reach another? It was impossible. They wouldn’t believe it.”
When after a few false starts they finally boarded the boat would take them to Christmas Island it was nothing more than a 10-metre open decked wooden boat with no cabin, bridge, bulkheads or benches.
Fifty seven people in all including nine children and more than a dozen women were on the vessel, including one woman seven months pregnant on her fourth attempt to cross the sea.
He writes that:
“The Indonesians distributed life vests: ridiculous things, made from thin fabric and a bit of foam. The youngest children, including a girl in a pink poncho who appeared no older than 4 or 5, were directed with their parents to a small square of open deck in the stern. The reason for this was that the farther aft you went, the less violent was the bucking as we plowed into the swells.”
In big seas, they endured sleep deprivation, dehydration, seasickness and filth. Everyone became violently sea sick, vomiting into plastic bags and reusing them.
”There was no toilet … The men urinated on the hull, the women in their pants … The bow – the only covered part of the boat – reeked dizzyingly of vomit and urine.”
In the torturous heat, the young pregnant woman’s condition “bordered on critical”.
They reached Australian waters and Australian officials boarded. They made it to Christmas Island.
But not for long.
The journalists admitted who they were and were taken from the asylum seekers to a luxury hotel.
The Iranians, including the pregnant woman were dispatched to Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Mogelson ends by speaking of his return to Afghanistan and how he met another man who had paid a people smuggler to take him to Australia. He says:
“I felt obligated to tell him he was wrong. “You won’t get to Australia,” I said.
Qais didn’t seem to hear. The words simply didn’t register. “Australia, Europe, America,” he said. “They’re not like here. You have a chance.”
Meanwhile, a harrowing episode of Four Corners last night revealed a new way people smugglers are selling people a passage to Australia. The investigation, led by reporter Sarah Ferguson, revealed people smugglers are now offering asylum seekers passports and Australian Visas so they can travel to Australia by plane.
This from the ABC:
An investigation by the ABC’s Four Corners program has revealed evidence that people smugglers are selling the travel documents for up to $16,000.
The passports and visas could enable asylum seekers to enter Australia via commercial airline flights rather than by fishing boats.
In a series of meetings in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur late last week, an Iraqi national known as Abu Tarek was secretly filmed offering the travel documents to potential customers.
The investigation also revealed details of the asylum seeker boat that sank last September killing 44 people – including 18 children.