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