Azaranica is a non-biased news aggregator on Hazaras. The main aim is to promote understanding and respect for cultural identities by highlighting the realities they face on daily basis...Hazaras have been the victim of active persecution and discrimination and one of the reasons among many has been the lack of information, awareness, and disinformation.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Those in peril on the sea

From:The Australian
June 28, 2012 12:00AM

A boat packed with asylum-seekers arrives at Christmas Island on August 11 last year, weeks before the High Court's decision scuttling offshore processing. Picture: Stephen Cooper Source: The Australian

THE jagged scar across his son's throat is a constant reminder to Said Alawi of why he sold everything he owned to raise $10,000 - the price of a ticket on a leaky boat and a storm-lashed journey to Australia.

The child was just three when Taliban insurgents told his mother they'd kill him if he did not reveal where his father was. To make his point, the insurgent with the knife slashed firmly enough to leave a wound that was deep but not fatal.

That wound scarred Said's psyche and left a terror for his family so deep that it overcame the fear of crossing an ocean he and his family and most members of his community had never seen to a land vastly foreign to anything they'd ever dreamed of.

During the past two years, Australians have watched horrified as hundreds of asylum-seekers have died in unseaworthy boats that have capsized, sunk or blown up.

Refugee advocates estimate that more than 1000 refugees have died in such disasters, many of them vanishing in storms and unseen by rescue teams.

More than 100 men, women and children have died in that way just in the past week.

On December 17 last year a boat carrying about 250 passengers sank off Java. More than 100 bodies were found, while 98 of those believed aboard remain unaccounted for and are presumed to have drowned. Just 49 were rescued.

In November last year, 30 died in yet another sinking off southern Java. On December 15, 2010, the nation watched appalled as SIEV 221 smashed on to rocks at Christmas Island, killing at least 50 of those aboard while island locals stood helplessly by.

Since January 1, 64 boats carrying 4678 asylum-seekers and 127 crew from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iran have come to Australia, earning people-smugglers millions of dollars.

Brisbane-based migration lawyer Bruce Henry, whose clients include many Hazara asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, says the experience of the sea voyage from Indonesia to Australia leaves families traumatised for years. "You have to remember they're Afghans and none has ever seen the ocean before," he tells The Australian.

Mohamed Ali, now a meat worker in Kilcoy in southern Queensland, wanted to travel with friends to Sydney. Henry told Ali and his friends they should take the coast road and stop at Yamba, where there's a wonderful saltwater pool.

"They all looked at me with absolute horror," Henry says. "Mohamed Ali said to me: 'We're never going near the ocean again as long as we live. When we drive to Sydney we're taking the inland route.' "

Pamela Curr, campaign co-ordinator at the Melbourne Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, tells The Australian she has files full of accounts by people who left their homes, their farms, their animals, their families and everything after receiving so-called "night letters" from the Taliban warning that they were going to be killed.

"They leave out of sheer desperation and lack of any other real alternatives," she says. "In practical terms, there is no proper way to get out of Afghanistan -- no embassy to apply for a visa. It doesn't work like that, so they have to flee and travel illegally.

"If there is no other way to get your family out safely, this is what you do."

From the late 1970s, Malcolm Fraser oversaw policies under which Australia accepted more than 70,000 refugees from Indochina. He says asylum-seekers are fleeing terrors far greater than that of the oceans that have swallowed so many of them.

"If people are fleeing what they regard as persecution or terror or danger to their kids or a place where there is absolutely no future for their family, then any kind of civilised government cannot create a nasty enough policy to deter them from trying to get somewhere else," Fraser told The Australian this week.

The former prime minister says the debate in Australia has made people-smugglers the cause of the problem. "It's not the cause. It's a consequence of tyranny. If you could some way get rid of terror and tyrannies, that would be the best way to get rid of people-smugglers. There'd be no market for them.

"No punitive measure, no nastiness by any Australian government, can match the terror from which a genuine refugee is fleeing," Fraser says.

That was the case with Alawi's family, part of the minority Hazara community, long persecuted by the largely Pashtun Taliban.

The family lived in Oruzgan province in southern Afghanistan where Alawi, then 26, ran a small shop. The Taliban turned up at his home after the Hazara community had been subjected to months of persecution.

The insurgents' intention was clear. Weeks before, the Taliban had murdered 35 Hazara men living nearby and tossed their bodies down a well. Family members were forced to pay the insurgents to get the bodies back for burial.

Alawi decided to escape to Australia, a country he had been told was "safe and rich". The prospect of a better life for his family justified the risks and the uncertainty of the voyage, Alawi says from his home in Brisbane. "It was a terrible time in Afghanistan. Schools were all closed, there was no economy, we were ordered to grow beards, were threatened and harassed all the time. I decided it was time we leave," he says.

Smugglers took the family to Quetta in Pakistan. Then they flew to Bangkok and on to Medan in Indonesia, then Jakarta. From there they flew to Surabaya to catch a ferry to Sumbawa in the chain of islands stretching down towards Timor.

That was their jump-off point.

At about 11pm they were taken to a beach with about 250 other passengers, mostly Hazaras, but including some Iranians. There was an early hint that all was not well when, as the vessel left Indonesia, two of its crew climbed into a small craft it was towing and headed for home in it.

Then followed a nightmare six-day voyage to Ashmore Reef with little food in a vessel that was "broken". After three days, the journey became a living hell.

"After three nights came the rain and very, very big winds," Alawi says.

"It pushed the boat over on its side. I was holding on for my life. The boat was shaking and water had begun to pour in. We were ordered to move to the other side. Lots of people were seasick, especially the women and children.

"Nobody had energy, we were so tired," Alawi continues. "It was a terrible time. Everyone on board was saying: 'Now we are going to die.' The captain announced we'd lost our way and he did not know where we were heading, and all the kids were crying."

To add to the terror, the Afghans discovered there were no life vests on board.

Eventually the storm subsided. The boat had taken on a lot of water and most of the precious store of drinking water and meagre food supplies had been lost overboard or contaminated in the chaos of the storm.

The boat arrived off Ashmore Reef, a tiny uninhabited Australian territory 840km west of Darwin, and was spotted by a Customs patrol plane. To the desperate asylum-seekers, that aircraft signalled salvation. "It was like a rainbow," Alawi says. Within hours a navy patrol boat arrived.

The family was housed in Woomera immigration detention centre in South Australia before being issued temporary protection visas. Alawi and his family were finally granted permanent residence and settled in Brisbane.

Today, he speaks fluent English and the former shopkeeper now works as a counsellor for aid agency Lives Without Barriers, caring for children and young people in immigration detention.

There is a dreadful repetition in the stories told by survivors of tragedy after tragedy. When last week's boat sank, it was believed to be carrying more than 200 people. Merchant ships and naval vessels rescued 110 of them.

Marine rescue experts calculated with grim precision that they had just 36 hours to find survivors who might be floating in life jackets or clinging to debris.

As RAAF and navy crews and merchant seamen searched with increasing desperation, that window shrank and closed with only bodies left to find.

Glimpses of the last days aboard the stricken vessel came in calls made on mobile phones by those aboard to relatives already in Australia.

One of those onboard the stricken vessel, Mohamed Salman, managed several calls to his cousin "Ali", who lives in Melbourne. In their last conversation Mohamed complained of a sore throat. Asked why it was hurting, Mohamed replied: "Everyone is praying loudly that we will be safe."

That call was received on the Monday soon after the boat set off on its doomed voyage and four days before it sank. Ali accuses people-smugglers of "playing with the lives of people".

One asylum-seeker who refused to board the overcrowded boat told the Pakistan Dawn newspaper how his last-minute decision saved his life. "I was about to board the vessel but changed my mind at the last moment when I saw the crowd," he said.

The dangers of the voyage have triggered calls by one refugee advocacy group for authorities to provide asylum-seekers with emergency radio beacons to help save lives in the event of a sinking.

The Refugee Action Coalition's Ian Rintoul has conceded this could break anti-people-smuggling laws, but he says more lives could be saved if boats carried radio beacons or EPIRBs (emergency position indicating radio beacons).

"We're getting advice that this could clash with the people-smuggling laws so we may well fall foul of that, although that's not necessarily an obstacle to us going ahead and doing it," Rintoul says.

That threat has left Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare unimpressed. He warns that there is no safe way to come to Australia on a people-smuggler's vessel.

"Anyone suggesting an EPIRB makes boarding a people-smuggling vessel any safer should consider the serious consequences of encouraging asylum-seekers to put their lives at risk," Clare says.

Brisbane-based migration lawyer Mark Plunkett says the government's policy of destroying asylum-seeker boats has led to the increasing use of unseaworthy vessels.

Fraser, meanwhile, says the answer to the refugee issue could be a regional solution in which Australia and some of its allies and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reach an agreement with Malaysia or Indonesia guaranteeing to take refugees from holding camps there.

Last night, Tony Abbott was offering to boost the nation's refugee intake to 20,000 a year.

"It was done before and it was done amicably," Fraser says.

After Vietnam, Australia, the US and Canada all agreed to take thousands of people to avoid boat tragedies. "We had about 70,000 refugees over quite a short time and everybody accepted it," he says.

The result was an economic boost for Australia. "Indochinese immigration has, in economic terms, probably paid off a thousandfold for Australia. They are very productive citizens."

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