Asylum seekers caught in limbo in Indonesia

Asylum seekers caught in limbo in Indonesia
Asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran aboard a vessel docked at Indah Kiat in Indonesia’s Banten province in April last year.

With three T-shirts and two pairs of trousers squeezed into a small backpack, and a photo of his family in his wallet, Mehran, 17, left his home town in Ghazni, Afghanistan, took a flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and soon found himself in a packed boat cutting through Indonesian waters.

His destination: Australia.

He paid US$7,000 (S$8,800) for the ride - as did Ali Jaan, 23, whose father was shot by Taleban militants five years ago.

They might never reach their destination.

They left Afghanistan four months ago, expecting to reach Australia a month later.

Their boat, which was supposed to take them to the south of Sumatra island, where they were to be met by their agent, landed at Belawan port in Medan instead, after the boatman veered off-course to escape bad weather.

The 30 Hazara ethnic minority men, women and children from Afghanistan who were on board had to disembark. On their own, they hitched rides on trucks and trains, ending up in Cisarua district in Bogor on Java island, where they joined a growing community of stranded asylum seekers.

Now, as they await boats bound for Australia, new rules in Canberra could see boats bearing asylum seekers being turned back.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Jakarta recorded 8,872 asylum seekers at the end of last month, mostly Afghans.

On Friday, 21 Middle Eastern asylum seekers drowned and many went missing after their Australia-bound boat sank off Indonesia, a grim reminder of the perilousness of their journeys.

The rising numbers of asylum seekers using Indonesia - with its sprawling and poorly monitored borders - as a transit point have burdened its detention centres, antagonised locals and turned it into a holding centre for asylum seekers, said Ms Atika Yuanita, a public interest lawyer at the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute.

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