Tricked by smugglers, it's sink or swim for Afghan youth

Telling the Human Story, 16 May 2014

© UNHCR/B.Baloch
UNHCR has been advocating for the release of people of concern in immigration detention centres such as this one in Makassar, Indonesia.

MAKASSAR, Indonesia, May 16 (UNHCR) Ahmed Rahimi* thought he had beaten the odds. After his brother was killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, he quit school and started working to support his family. For a while, he worked on an American construction project in Kabul while commuting home to see his grief-stricken mother in Parwan province.

"I had a good salary, a good life," said the 25-year-old Afghan. But it all ended when he was kidnapped and beaten, accused of being a Western spy.

He managed to escape, but his kidnappers came looking for him at work. "We're [ethnic] Hazara Shia and we work with foreigners," he said. "They say we have to be killed."

A friend introduced him to a smuggler who promised to get him to Australia for US$11,000. In November last year, he left Kabul for Indonesia via India and Malaysia. The plan was to get himself on a smuggler's boat to Australia.

Although Ahmed had heard that irregular boat arrivals would be taken directly to processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, he was assured otherwise. "There were rumours that Papua New Guinea and Nauru were closed because of riots. The smuggler said he could take us to Christmas Island and the [Australian] government would accept us and let us work."

After paying an additional US$4,500, he was put on a boat with eight other people. For four days they hid under the deck until they landed on a beach. They were locked up in a room, then taken to another beach where they were supposed to be picked up by a bigger ship and taken to Christmas Island.

But the ship never came and the smuggler disappeared. The group was arrested by the Indonesian authorities and taken to Makassar immigration detention centre in Indonesia's South Sulawesi province in March this year.

Most of the group has been released to community housing. Ahmed and Yama, a fellow Afghan he met on the journey, are the only ones left in detention. They spend their days at the centre cooking and playing football or volleyball. The rest of the time they wait and ponder their next move.

Both have applied for asylum through UNHCR and hope to be released and resettled eventually. "If the government can transfer us legally, of course we have to go legally," said Ahmed. "If not, we have to do something. It's clear we can't go home. If my life wasn't in danger, why would I come here, why would I suffer like this?"

He says he is depressed in detention and very worried about his family back in Afghanistan.

Yama shares the sense of desperation: "If I'm recognized as a refugee, I will stay and wait. But if I'm rejected, I will try to contact the smuggler and take another boat to Australia."

Asked if he can still trust the smugglers after his last experience, the 21-year-old sighed, "I have to believe. There is no choice."

In the absence of a national framework in Indonesia, UNHCR processes asylum claims and works with the government and partners to provide protection and assistance, especially to the most vulnerable. There are currently more than 10,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, nearly 17 per cent of whom live in 13 detention centres across the country. UNHCR has been advocating for alternatives to detention and for ways to help refugees and asylum-seekers survive in exile until longer-term solutions are found.

*Name changed for protection reasons

By Vivian Tan in Makassar, Indonesia




UNHCR country pages


UNHCR advocates fair and efficient procedures for asylum-seekers

Asylum and Migration

Asylum and Migration

All in the same boat: The challenges of mixed migration around the world.


Numbers are important in the aid business and UNHCR's statisticians monitor them daily.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

France is one of the main destinations for asylum-seekers in Europe, with some 55,000 new asylum applications in 2012. As a result of the growing number of applicants, many French cities are facing an acute shortage of accommodation for asylum-seekers.

The government is trying to address the problem and, in February 2013, announced the creation of 4,000 additional places in state-run reception centres for asylum-seekers. But many asylum-seekers are still forced to sleep rough or to occupy empty buildings. One such building, dubbed the "Refugee Hotel" by its transient population, lies on the outskirts of the eastern city of Dijon. It illustrates the critical accommodation situation.

The former meat-packing plant is home to about 100 asylum-seekers, mostly from Chad, Mali and Somalia, but also from Georgia, Kosovo and other Eastern European countries. Most are single men, but there are also two families.

In this dank, rat-infested empty building, the pipes leak and the electricity supply is sporadic. There is only one lavatory, two taps with running water, no bathing facilities and no kitchen. The asylum-seekers sleep in the former cold-storage rooms. The authorities have tried to close the squat several times. These images, taken by British photographer Jason Tanner, show the desperate state of the building and depict the people who call it home.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

The Faces of Asylum

Everyone has a right to be treated humanely and with dignity. But asylum-seekers can sometimes be detained for years, forced to exist on the edge of society and struggle for their right to protection, while in some cases suffering human rights abuses. Their temporary new homes - a long way from the ones they left behind - can be sports halls, churches, closed centres, makeshift shelters or simply the street. Lives are put on hold while people wait in the hope of receiving refugee status.

Although it is the legitimate right of any government to secure its borders and prevent irregular immigration, it is important that anyone seeking asylum in a country have access to it. According to international law, states are obliged to provide protection to those in need, and must not return a person to a place where their life or freedom is threatened.

This photo set looks at the faces of people seeking asylum in industrialized countries - the real people behind the numbers, crossing land borders and oceans in search of safety, work or just a better life.

The Faces of Asylum

Afghanistan: Rebuilding a War-Torn Country

The cycle of life has started again in Afghanistan as returnees put their shoulders to the wheel to rebuild their war-torn country.

Return is only the first step on Afghanistan's long road to recovery. UNHCR is helping returnees settle back home with repatriation packages, shelter kits, mine-awareness training and vaccination against diseases. Slowly but surely, Afghans across the land are reuniting with loved ones, reconstructing homes, going back to school and resuming work. A new phase in their lives has begun.

Watch the process of return, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction unfold in Afghanistan through this gallery.

Afghanistan: Rebuilding a War-Torn Country

Christmas tree a gift of love for refugees in GreecePlay video

Christmas tree a gift of love for refugees in Greece

For children spending Christmas at the Idomeni refugee reception centre in northern Greece, Congolese asylum seeker Michel Kamusha has "a gift of love." Drawing on his skills as an artist he decorates a Christmas with tree with socks, toys, shoes and clothes to give the youngsters "hope for Christmas."
Greece: Ramping up refugee receptionPlay video

Greece: Ramping up refugee reception

UNHCR staff are working with Government authorities, NGOs and volunteers on the beaches of the Greek island of Lesvos to receive cold, wet and fearful asylum seekers making landfall around the clock. They wrap them in thermal blankets and take them to warm, safe emergency accommodation at transit sites, with power and Wi-Fi connectivity.
The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: Refugees Onward JourneyPlay video

The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: Refugees Onward Journey

A transit centre at Vinojug, on FYR Macedonia's border with Greece is where the refugees and migrants pass through on their journey further into Europe. Here UNHCR and partner organisations provide food, water, medical care, psycho-social support and information for refugees who take the train towards the border with Serbia. UNHCR also provides information on how to access the asylum system in the country. In recent weeks, an average of 6,300 refugees pass through the camp every day, yesterday that number grew to 10,000, a record.