That Sinking Feeling

That Sinking Feeling

Asylum seekers and the search for the Indonesian solution

Paul Toohey


All the frustration and hatred Ali Reza Bahrami had ever known welled within him and spilled forth. It was directed at a group of Iranian asylum seekers, all of them men, all of them in the final stages of preparation to catch a boat from Indonesia to Australia. Reza was walking in angry circles, punching his chest, defining himself, standing his ground, poking his finger sharply into Iranian chests. He was just one young man, aged twenty-­three, and an Afghan. He was badly outnumbered in terms of ethnicity and physical size, but he refused to back down.

We felt some responsibility for Reza, who had been acting as our informal translator and guide in the small mountaintop city of Cisarua, in central West Java, the place where most of the asylum seekers wanting to get to Australia come to find a smuggler and passage south. Reza was digging himself deeper, abusing the Iranians in their own Farsi language, one of the many in which he was fluent. Some of the Iranians were kissing him on the face, telling him to calm down. Others looked menacing. I got the feeling Reza was about to be stabbed. Our appeals for Reza to get control of himself were under assault from his own rising fury, as he screamed that he would never again, under any circumstance, explain himself to an Iranian.

After two years of living in Cisarua, and three in Malaysia before that, Reza knew the local asylum scene intimately – who was passenger or smuggler, old hand or recent arrival. Reza had brought us up a steep narrow road to a villa, occupied by twenty or more Iranian men. We were in a smuggler’s villa and ought not have been there. We had asked Reza if he knew a group that was ready to sail. He said he did and had brought us straight here. He had earlier befriended one of the members of this group, who were now on standby, ready to shift at a moment’s notice in mini-­vans or trucks down to the southern coast and onto a smuggler’s boat.

In only one sense was this group any different to the other small groups of mostly Afghans and Iranians who openly wandered this hilltop town, bored, using the internet cafés, window shopping the things they’d seen many times before, buying nothing but essentials because they would need their money further down the line, hopefully in Australia. These Iranians were quarantined, meaning no contact with any outsiders. They were tour packaged for Christmas Island, ready to sail. It was Friday 20 July 2013. Initially, with Reza translating, everything had gone well.

The conversation was very different to what it would have been in this same city in late 2007, when Kevin Rudd, as the new prime minister, ordered Manus Island and Nauru to close on humanitarian grounds and ended the temporary protection visa program.* Back then it was difficult to get anyone in Cisarua to admit they were trying to take a boat. They would swear they were there to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to gain formal status as refugees, and ideally to have their accommodation and a living stipend paid by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as they awaited orderly resettlement in a First World country – which they prayed would be Australia. Some of them, particularly the single mothers with clutches of children, said they were prepared to wait for years, if that’s what it took, in the hope of resettlement – even though they had just a one in ten chance of getting one of the 80,000 annual global resettlement places on offer. But most were there for the boats.

Rudd could afford the luxury of a conscience, then, because he had arrived in office to find the Manus and Nauru offshore facilities all but empty, and it was deemed that temporary protection visas were too harsh. There were no boats, apart from the odd freak vessel. By general agreement, John Howard, assisted by a lull in international people flows, had stopped them.

Rudd’s shift soon aroused interest in South Asia – the countries from Afghanistan down to Sri Lanka – and the Middle East, in places such as Quetta, Kabul, Kandahar, Tehran and Abadan City, home to high numbers of discontented and at-­risk people. Some of these began to move down to Indonesia again. At first, most were Afghan Hazaras and Sri Lankan Tamils, who were coming to the losing end of a 26-­year civil war. There were also people from Burma’s Muslim Rohingya minority, though they were scattered and disorganised, more downtrodden and less able to raise the smugglers’ fees. Slower to move, initially, were the Iranians, although they would soon begin to gather in great numbers.

They entered Indonesia in various ways. Most, excepting the Iranians, could not turn up at Jakarta’s Soekarno-­Hatta International Airport and apply for visas-­on-­arrival. The Sri Lankans would set sail east across the Indian Ocean for Malaysia, or the westernmost Indonesian island of Sumatra, where they would find smugglers to ferry and bus them to the central West Java province of Bogor, where Cisarua is located. Those coming from the neighbourhoods of Afghanistan and Pakistan would fly to Malaysia, which issued visas-­on-­arrival to most nationalities, and catch inter-­island ferries to Indonesia. These were usually the smaller groups, who were not as yet in the hands of smugglers or their agents. But they typically had the name and number of someone who could help, or had plans to meet some of their own people in Indonesia and gain introduction to a smuggler. Others, particularly the Iranians, had been flying directly to Jakarta as half-­disguised tour groups, sometimes with an agent on the same flight herding them through. That was until Indonesia banned on-­the-­spot visas for Iranians in mid-­2013, supposedly in response to a personal request from Rudd to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (so it was reported in Australia, but later, when things went bad during the spying scandal, senior Indonesian ministers would say they’d cut the visa-­­­on-­­arrival program not to help Australia, but because too many Iranians were bringing drug problems to Indonesia).

Sri Lankans liked to avoid attention and were hustled down to Bogor to disappear into their own networks, lying low. Most of the other groups moved more openly. Upon arrival in Jakarta, they would book into one of several usual-­suspect hotels, where they would meet their smuggler and do business. It was important to asylum seekers that they did this face-­­to-­face, preferably with someone from their own country or ethnicity.

People shopped with smugglers who had a reputation for getting people to Christmas Island safely. Death-­boat smugglers went out of business, or kept operations going by hiding in the shadows behind lieutenants. Not only were passengers investing what might amount to their earthly wealth, they were often travelling with children and wanted assurances the boats were safe. They also wanted to know that they would not be arrested in Indonesia. Such guarantees were easily given. These customer–smuggler meetings showed how intimate the operations were. After the asylum trade restarted in early 2008, the Australian Federal Police in Jakarta would come to the view that there were not really any smuggling Mr Bigs, not in the sense of snakehead triad bosses or masterminds hiding behind complex walls of front companies. They were small-­time businessmen crooks, usually from Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan, living openly in Jakarta and growing rich on the proceeds of smuggling.

The smuggler bosses often used Arabic pseudonyms, such as Abu Wasim or Abu Yunis (Abu means “father of” and is as meaningless as calling someone “Mister”). These men declared themselves to be Hajji, meaning they had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. It gave them an element of credibility with their Muslim clients, they wrongly imagined, because Hajji were expected to be honest men. The passengers were not so naive as to place store in the Hajji deceit, and they would later laugh ruefully about it when boats sank or their money went missing.

Assistance was also provided so passengers could access their money to pay for the trip. This was not always as straightforward as making multiple withdrawals from a cash machine, especially for Iranians, whose banks were subject to UN sanctions and non-­operational in Indonesia. The Iranians usually paid $5000 to $8000 for boat passage to Christmas Island, which did not include their flights to Jakarta. They made arrangements with trusted relatives back home to shift money to the smugglers’ bank accounts once a family group had safely made it to Indonesia. Or the smugglers would introduce them to local moneychangers, who would charge high transaction fees to change cash bundles to US dollars, the only currency the smugglers accepted. The business deals were conducted with solemn grace, the smugglers listening sadly to their customers’ tales, assuring them as they counted their money that the struggle was almost over.

The Afghan asylum seekers got a better deal, being historically the steadiest customers. Not only did they travel slightly cheaper, apparently for the simple reason that they were poorer, but they were also not expected to stump up cash before travel. Trusted relatives would only transfer money to the smugglers upon news of a confirmed landfall on Christmas Island (where new arrivals had the right to make a short call, anywhere in the world, to tell relatives they were safe). The Afghans paid for success. The Iranians had been using the Cisarua route since the time of Tampa, but the black market took a different view of them to the Afghans. Between 2010 and 2013, the Iranians had become especially impatient customers. They required rapid passage to Australia, with no dawdling in Indonesia. Under such terms, the smugglers were able to demand higher fees and strict cash upfront.

Passengers would make their way down to Cisarua, ninety minutes south of Jakarta, a trip which could quickly turn into four hours in heavy traffic, where they would move in with friends, occupy accommodation provided by the IOM, or be met by the smugglers’ agent, typically Iraqi, Iranian, Afghan or Sri Lankan, who would act as guardian for the new passengers, shovelling them into short-­term accommodation. These same agents would also be monitoring the streets, on constant lookout for straggler groups that needed a boat. Whoever the asylum seeker was, however they had come, they almost always ended up in this resort city.

Cisarua is set amid active volcanoes and tea plantations, and home to a sizeable prostitute population. There were white-­skinned Moroccan women, who catered to wealthy Indonesian clients, and Indonesian women, who tended to come from other regions in order to protect local Sundanese sensibilities, catering to Arabic vacationers. Security men working the hotel carparks were the first contact for the hookers, who did not walk the streets but were available by request. Everything in Cisarua was in your face, yet behind the thinnest screen. Some of the city’s signage was Indonesian and Arabic, not indicative of a community lean towards sharia law as might be seen in Aceh, but in deference to the large number of Saudis and Kuwaitis who came to visit the Taman Safari game park, to take mountain treks and four-­wheel-­drive expeditions, or to idle in villas where the strictures of home were relaxed. One young Saudi diplomat told me his dad owned a villa in Cisarua. Asked why they were so attached to the place, he said: “It’s cheap and it rains every afternoon.” Young men in shorts and thongs brought their black-­burqa brides for honeymoons, gathering in the cool and clean local Pizza Hut, where the women lifted their cloth muzzles to sip Coke through straws and eat. With only their heavily painted eyes visible behind the slits, they seemed loaded with intriguing sexuality. (Note to self for future thesis: Is the burqa failing to achieve its intended purpose?) Many more groups of young Saudi men came without women, partying with girls-­for-­hire and alcohol behind the high-­walled villas. Or so the local hotel security men claimed. Wealthy Chinese-­Indonesians filled the sprawling cliffside hotels on weekends.

At a glance, the Arabic influence seemed due to the asylum seekers, with shops in the bazaar selling hookahs, pistachios, dates and oranges. But it was actually an effect of the longstanding Saudi and Kuwaiti visitors, who kept a careful distance from the asylum seekers, regarding them as an unseemly presence in their holiday town. Off the main road, the place is a collection of private villas: some luxurious, some mid-­range, some scummed-­out and past their prime, the tennis courts showing weeds in the earthquake cracks. Local landlords unable to afford upgrades had gladly turned over their faded resort properties to the asylum seekers who were there for the long haul, rent guaranteed by the IOM. Or they provided short-­stay deals, cramming up to fifty passengers into a single dwelling while the smugglers waited for boats to become available.

Those villas that were loaded with imminent travellers were badly kept local secrets, as were the villas where the local smuggler bosses lived – often with Indonesian wives and kids, which showed how comfortably settled they were in this town. One night I witnessed some fifty asylum seekers raid the villa of their smuggler, demanding their money back after he and his agents had repeatedly failed to make good on their promise that the group was to sail the following day. Punches were thrown and there was a mini-­riot in the smuggler’s front yard, set in a heavily populated alley. No neighbour called the police. Or if they did, the police did not come. Cisarua, on any day post-­2008, was brimming with asylum seekers, smugglers and the wealthy, casually dressed Saudis, who did not appreciate being mistaken by a journalist for Australia-­bound desperados.

Registering with the UNHCR was a formality for many asylum seekers, even if they had every intention of catching a boat. Once settled in Cisarua, they would take the two-­hour train ride north back to central Jakarta and queue, sometimes for days, outside the UNHCR building in the Sabang area, entering not through the main entrance but by a small rear laneway. There they milled about, waiting for appointments. After being granted an interview, they would get a one-­page slip of paper called a UN Refugee Certificate. Their names would enter circulation as people who needed a new country, and the long wait would begin.

Even though Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees, it tolerates the UN’s presence. The UN, and the IOM, which is tasked with trying to persuade people to return home, brought some small sense of order to the 10,000–15,000 asylum seekers, and many more registered refugees, who were at any time in Java, hoping for resettlement or a boat. Having a Refugee Certificate was the first official step to a new life, but it did not mean they were formally acknowledged as refugees. It only meant the process had begun. The real benefit of holding this black and white photocopied document was to keep police off their backs. No asylum seeker or refugee who was in Indonesia for more than a few months wanted to move around in public without having this document in their wallet or handbag.

Yet no one ever deregistered with the UNHCR when they snuck off to catch a boat. Now, five years on from Rudd’s policy shift, there were at least thirty Persian smuggling agents living in Cisarua, offering passage south on questionable vessels. That was beside the Sri Lankan, Afghan and Arab specialist smugglers.

The group of Iranians surrounding Reza in the smuggler’s compound had not bothered with the UNHCR procedures – they’d been moving too fast. They had left Iran only ten days earlier. The 2013 Australian federal election was looming and any pretense of waiting for legal resettlement had been abandoned. So many boats had been leaving, transporting more than 25,000 by sea in the past twelve months, and approaching 50,000 since Rudd had softened asylum policy, that no one any longer bothered denying their plans. They were taking the boats.

“Of course,” they said.

* Temporary protection visas required holders to reapply for a second TPV after three years, with the prospect of being sent home if home conditions were deemed improved. Holders were also denied access to family reunion programs and barred from returning to Australia should they leave for any reason.



This is an extract from Paul Toohey's Quarterly Essay, That Sinking Feeling: Asylum seekers and the search for the Indonesian solution. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.


Paul Toohey is chief northern correspondent for the Australian. He won a Walkley Award for his first Quarterly Essay, Last Drinks: The Impact of the Northern Territory Intervention. He was previously a senior writer at the Bulletin and is the author of three books: God’s Little Acre, Rocky Goes West and The Killer Within. He has won the Graham Perkin journalist of the year award and a Walkley award for magazine feature writing. He lives in Darwin.


Lech Blaine
Peter Dutton's Strongman Politics
Alan Kohler
Australia's Housing Mess and How to Fix It
Micheline Lee
Disability, Humanity and the NDIS
Megan Davis
On Recognition and Renewal
Saul Griffith
Electrification and Community Renewal
Katharine Murphy
Albanese and the New Politics