Indonesia is home to more than 12,000 refugees, most hoping for asylum in Australia or the United States. Many of them live in Jakarta. Some asylum seekers live in overcrowded detention centers. The rest share small apartments scattered around the city.
In these concrete apartment blocks, the refugees sit and wait, often with 15 people or more sharing a four room place. Most hope to go to Australia due to its proximity and relative short wait time for a visa, about a year.
In addition to trying to reach Australia, refugees also make a dangerous trip to Indonesia. Those who do arrive are unable to work legally or attend school. Instead, they watch television, spend time on their mobile phones, and go to high-end malls with Dairy Queen, Dunkin’ Donuts, Luis Vuitton and other Western outlets. These refugees exist in an uneasy limbo, fearful of deportation, fearful of denial for asylum in another country, and fearful their dangerous and expensive trip across Asia may not pay off. This past winter, many refugee families in Jakarta were also targeted for extortion by police in search of bribes.
Below is the story of one such young man, Hussain, and his road to Jakarta and ideally a better future. He is now 18 and has been in Jakarta for more than two years, waiting for a visa to Australia.
My Family Wasn’t There
In Colombo, Sri Lanka, I first saw the ocean and truly understood the difficulty of what I was attempting. Looking out to the horizon, I couldn’t see anything except water. The ocean, in its vastness, scared me, but I knew there was no life for me to go back to Afghanistan.
My journey started two weeks earlier in Pakistan. But it also started much before that.
About three years before, when I was 12, my family had fled Afghanistan after my older brother was tortured by the Taliban because they suspected him of helping NATO. We went to Pakistan, seeking medical help for my brother, but he didn’t survive. Shortly afterwards, my mother decided Pakistan was dangerous for me too, so she sent me to Iran. Eventually the police found me and found no papers for me to be there, so they sent me back to Afghanistan. Now 15, I had made my way again through Afghanistan back to Pakistan and the city of Quetta, feeling nothing but excitement to see my family. I had not seen or talked to them in months.
But my family wasn’t there. I learned through relatives that my mother had moved on to seek asylum in Australia. Despite the disappointment I felt when I realized my family was gone, I focused instead on how I too could get to Australia. I had no family, I had never been to school, I was at risk of being shot because of my identity as Hazara. My only hope was to move forward. I knew the journey would be costly, but I knew the costs could be even greater if I stayed.
With help from my old landlord and family friend, who helped take care of my brother before he died, I found a smuggler. My landlord, a Haji and deeply religious person, also paid the more than $6,000 fee. Soon after, I found myself heading in darkness to Quetta.
Getting Out of Pakistan
On the evening of Jan. 12, 2013, I was picked up by a white mini-bus outside Quetta in Pakistan. In the van were three other young Afghans.
After we picked up one more man, we hit the highway heading in the cold dawn to the airport. We were scared, well aware that we could be stopped at any moment and killed, simply for being Hazara.
A minority group, Hazaras have a Mongolian looking face, with a flat nose, small eyes and yellow color that makes them distinctive. Hazaras continue to be persecuted in Afghanistan and Pakistan because of their ethnicity and faith. The Pashtuns, for example, believe that Afghanistan is only their land and Hazara are decendants of Ghengis Khan and don’t belong there. The Pashtuns are also Sunni, while Hazara are Shia.
The situation in the city was very tense, and I was concerned the van would be stopped, but we reached the Quetta airport safely. The plane landed in Karachi, and after a day in a hotel, mostly watching TV, the Smuggler called suddenly. He said an agent would bring me my passport and I had only a few minutes to get ready.
Crossing an Ocean
In Colombo, the hotel was crowded and smelling of the other men. There was no water for bathing. I walked to the beach in search of some peace. There, I saw the ocean for the first time and understood the enormity of what lay ahead.
That evening, back at the hotel, we consumed biscuits and sodas, the cheapest options we could find. Sleep was impossible since nearby there was loud disco music and the sounds of the people praying.
The next morning, early, we had a flight to Bangkok, Thailand.
We reached the Bangkok airport at noon and looked for the smugglers who were supposed to meet us. They discreetly gave us instructions to go to counter 9 or 15 at immigration. I was sweating, knowing I could be arrested and deported if I said the wrong thing.
Two young Pakistani guys were waiting outside the airport to pick us up. We recognized one by his red cap, and he recognized us by our Hazara faces and black laptop bags. The other three guys went in a taxi with one of the agents, and I got on the back of the other agent’s motorbike. He rode the bike so fast that I could barely open my eyes because of the air stinging my eyes.
When we reached the hotel around 1 p.m., he told us we would move in two hours. This time there would be no more airplanes, we would travel by land. And thus began one of the worst parts of the trip.
Jammed into the Trunk
Our drivers dropped us off at a bus station. On the bus, we drove for a full day, finally reaching Dunnok, near the Malaysian boarder. Another agent, who again recognized us by our black laptop bags, took us to the border in a big black car, where we stopped at the border patrol and immigration office. We went into a room to get exit stamps in our fake passports. Officials asked us questions, one at a time, and stamped our passports. Then all of a sudden everything happened in a hurry.
The agent who had driven us from the bus station to the border told us to get in the trunk of a white car. We jumped in quickly. We were in awkward positions; one guy’s shoes were at another’s mouth and elbows were jammed into ribs. We didn’t have time to settle properly, but we would stay in these painful positions, barely able to breathe, for hours.
The car’s engine started and we began moving, though we didn’t know who was driving us. After only about 15 minutes, the trunk flew open, and we were terrified we would be seen. We used our hands to pull down the trunk door and close it, but there was no obvious place to grip the trunk from the inside. We used the tips of our fingers to try to press down on a small lip on the inside of the trunk. Our fingers ached as we tried to grip the trunk to keep it down. It was painful. It was dark and hot the whole way, and we needed air. Our heads smashed against metal as the car traveled over bumps.
After about two hours, our hands and heads in great pain, the car stopped. We had a moment of suspense, wondering what was going on. We could hear someone approaching. The person tried to open the trunk. It felt like our hearts were in our mouths. We were pulling the trunk down as hard as we could as the person tried to open it. He won. As the trunk door lifted, we moved our heads to see who was there, who had discovered us. The policeman, standing there, asked us to get out of the trunk.
Our bodies were numb after more than an hour bumping in the trunk, but our hearts were terrified. We all knew the stories that Malaysia was the worst place to get caught. In other places, they simply deport you. In Malaysia, they torture you with brutal beatings or spray you naked with water hoses for a month or more before they deport you, if they deport you.
As we untangled ourselves and climbed out, we found we were in a jungle. As I took view of my surroundings, I could see only trees and a wood cabin, in front of which a refugee family was sitting. I wondered if they were waiting for an agent to pick them up. Were we caught or were in a transit place? It was not yet clear what was happening.
After getting the blood moving in our stiff bodies, the man in the police uniform told us to get back in the car, but this time, to our relief, we could sit on the seats. He drove us to a place where we transferred to another car, this time a taxi, which would take us to Kuala Lumpur. Evidently the “policeman” was not everything he had seemed to be.
The Boys Had Not Seen Daylight for Months
On the way to Kuala Lumpur, in spite of my fear, I was very aware of the beauty of the place. We passed through beautiful scenery and waterfalls, the tranquil views completely at odds with my tortured thoughts.
After a half day’s drive and a bottle of water and a little bread from a gas station, the taxi driver handed us over to a new set of agents, two brothers, in Kuala Lumpur. The agents took us to a house where we met around 50 other Afghans, all passengers waiting to go to Indonesia. That night, finally, we ate a proper meal for the first time in a week, for once no biscuits and soda. That night we all slept on the floor, using our bags as pillows.
In the morning, we chatted with the other passengers. Most of them were in their 20s, but there were also some younger boys and older men. There were no women. I learned that some guys had waited over two months in the house, not allowed to be loud or go out under any circumstances. The boys had not seen sunlight for months.
I also saw three of the guys I met earlier at the Karachi hotel. They had arrived after midnight, injured and bloody. They said they were caught in Thailand. The police had fired into the air. Of the group of eight, only the three of them were able to escape through barbed wire into the jungle. The other five were arrested and deported. That evening the two brothers returned to the house and made groups and schedules. They took money from each passenger who would be leaving in the next day or two, changing currencies as necessary.
The Boat to Sumatra
I was lucky: That night I would be going to the boat. The other three boys I had previously traveled with were also going, along with seven others. I was lucky to move out of that locked house after only 24 hours. Other boys had been there a lot longer, and they were sick of that house and wanted to move. It was because my original smuggler back in Quetta had paid quickly, that’s why I was moving on and the unlucky ones with less good smugglers had to sit and wait.
After dark fell that night, two cars arrived. The two cars, which held the 11 of us, traveled with 20 minutes between cars to the boat that would take us, at last, to Indonesia.
After a few hours, we reached the edge of a jungle, which I later figured out was somewhere near Medan on the island of Sumatra, although I didn’t know that then. We had to get into the jungle under an iron fence that separated the road from the jungle. We each had our turn whenever there was a gap between passing cars.
After 45 minutes in the jungle, bent low, we reached a shore were we could see a speedboat, even in the midnight darkness. The boat didn’t come to the shore, so we would have to get in the water. On the call of the agent, we rushed into the water. We waded in till the water reached our chests.
The boat ran like a bullet over the water. The only time the boat slowed down a bit was to refuel every 25 minutes from one of the many gallons of petrol stored at one end of boat. The captain told us to sit equally on both sides to keep the boat balanced, but we had to sit low, beneath the rim of the boat so people on other night-time boats would not see us. Our lips became dried out from the salty water. We smashed our heads hard against the side of the boat with each crashing landing on a wave. Then it started to rain.
I prayed harder than I have ever prayed in my life. I was sure I would die. The boat was a joke, cracking with every crash over every wave, I couldn’t swim, and land was nowhere in sight.
All of a sudden we could see lights from a city far in the distance. But then, to my disbelief, the captain didn’t steer us toward the lights, he curved the boat in the opposite direction.
He did take us to land, only it wasn’t to a city. We arrived at the shore again at the edge of a jungle under the light of the moon. I walked along a wooden plank onto the sand, bruised and exhausted, soaking wet, but amazed to be alive.
But there was no time to dwell on our survival. A new agent was rushing us to move quickly into two waiting cars. We drove off through the jungle to a wood cabin at the edge of a village, where we gratefully changed our cloths and lay down to sleep.
We didn’t sleep well, though. The room was so small that we were practically on top of each other as we lay on the floor. There were 11 of us and with each movement we woke up the guy next to us.
Unfortunately we got to know that room very well, as we were locked in for two days and two nights. The walls were covered with written names, places and dates as memorials. All day we read the walls. We tried to sleep, we listened to songs stored on our phones, and we peeked through a hole in the wall, trying to see if an agent might come. A guy checked on us about every 12 hours. We hoped for food and water, though none arrived.
Finally, on the third day, an Indonesian man unlocked the door and guided us out of the cabin into two cars. We drove out of the village and were loaded onto a bus at the side of the road. The bus took us to Jakarta. We were on bus for three nights, still without food except biscuits and water. I thought I was going to faint.
We Didn’t Bother Sleeping
On the third night, a little more than two weeks after we left Pakistan, we finally arrived in Jakarta. We were dropped off a hotel near the UNHCR Office. There was a shop just below our room, but without the proper papers we couldn’t go down to get noodles. My co-passengers with family members back in Pakistan and Afghanistan couldn’t go downstairs to call their families.
We didn’t bother sleeping. We lined up at 4 a.m. outside the UNHCR office to register as asylum seekers. I received my registration card, and for the first time since I left Pakistan I felt safe.