Desperate Measures

29 May 2015 Angelica Neville

Desperate Measures

Asylum seekers will go to extraordinary lengths to flee persecution and other dangers in their homelands. They will do almost anything to find sanctuary in a new country. But, as journalist Angelica Neville discovers during her investigation in Indonesia, destination countries like Australia will go to even greater lengths to keep them out.


“Houses weren’t supposed to be built this small,” my friend, an Afghani named Kamran, explains as we weave through the hip-wide alleyways that laced impossibly packed concrete buildings in one of Jakarta’s outer suburbs. He explains that the area isn’t a slum, just the result of corrupt building officials.

Kamran is in his mid-twenties, he fled Afghanistan three years ago and was found to be a refugee by the Jakarta office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Now he is waiting to be resettled. He invited me into his home to meet some of his friends. We sit cross-legged on the carpeted floor, drinking tea, in the hot upstairs room. There are two fans, no windows and a plastic container full of plain white lollies.

I speak to Moheeba, an old Afghani man who tells me that, when he was young, nobody went to school because parents were worried their children would be eaten by wolves on the way. That’s how old he was, he said – now people in Afghanistan send their children to school. “That is the biggest change I saw in my lifetime.”

Moheeba had been a rock-breaker, and it looks as if the dust has settled permanently in the creases of his skin. One day, while working, he was kidnapped by the Taliban. Once free, he fled across the porous border to Pakistan. “I left Afghanistan to live in peace, but it was not peace in Pakistan also,” he explains. In Karachi, Moheeba organised for a smuggler to fly him to Jakarta. That was four years ago.

“When you cannot bear it anymore, then you migrate. You migrate to save your life,” Moheeba tells me. He has also been recognised as a refugee by the UNHCR, but now he is waiting for an embassy to accept his application so he can resettle. The hardest thing about waiting in Jakarta is the hunger and the uncertainty. “I don’t know if I will ever be resettled. All I know is I can’t go home.”

In November 2014, the Australian Government announced that asylum seekers who registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia will no longer be able to be resettled under Australia’s humanitarian program. This applies to any asylum seekers who arrived in Indonesia after 1 July 2014. The Australian Government also announced it would reduce the intake of refugees who arrived in Indonesia before July 2014. Moheeba’s wait for resettlement now feels even more indefinite. He says he has no intention of travelling to Australia by boat because he’s afraid of the seas and fearful that a boat arrival will lessen his chances of being granted asylum. He can’t travel to Australia by plane either, as he has no travel documents. The smugglers who arranged for him to enter Indonesia took their fake documents back.

I asked another of Kamran’s friends, also seeking asylum, why those fleeing violence don’t just fly to countries that have ratified the Refugee Convention on a tourist visa and then apply for asylum on arrival. He explains that many people just don’t have access to passports. Regardless, he says, “there is no way someone from Afghanistan would get a visa.”

Visas play an often-ignored role in preventing people wishing to seek asylum from travelling legitimately. Sitting on the porch of an enormous Starbucks in a white Art Deco office building in Jakarta’s diplomatic neighbourhood, I speak to Febi Yonesta, a human rights advocate and the director of the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute.

He explains how countries use visa restrictions as a deterrent: when particular nationalities have high asylum application rates, destination states introduce stricter visa requirements for those groups as a preventative mechanism. This is one reason refugees use irregular means of travel, such as boats. “Previously most Iranians brought their documents, because they entered [Indonesia] by plane, they came on tourist visas... There is no longer visa on arrival because so many Iranians came to seek asylum,” Yonesta explains.

The trend of introducing visas to target and prevent the movement of specific nationalities emerged in the 1990s during a spike in asylum-seeker numbers. This was along with other preventative measures such as governments fining airlines if they transport anyone without proper documentation. Between 1982 and 1984, 520 onshore claims for asylum were made in Australia. This rose to 27,117 between 1989 and 1991. Part of this increase was the result of a one-off offer to consider Chinese students living in Australia for refugee status after the Tiananmen Square massacre. However, as Matthew Gibney notes in his book The Ethics and Politics of Asylum, “it was evidence also that Australia was not immune to the rising numbers of ‘Jet age’ asylum seekers that had generated controversy in Europe and North America”. He also notes a demographic change that occurred at this time: refugees started arriving from Somalia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Iran.

Cheaper air travel meant that not only did numbers of asylum seekers increase, but people seeking asylum started coming from increasingly farther afield. Border controls became a big deal. They tightened and expanded in reach. On a scratchy phone line between Sydney and Kuala Lumpur, Rick Towle, the UNHCR Representative in Malaysia, puts it simply: “Borders have been pushed right out beyond physical boundaries of states.”

Australia and other major destination states go to considerable effort to prevent potential asylum seekers arriving by attempting to stop them at their source. Part of this is making it more difficult for potential asylum seekers to travel by plane.

In June last year a post on the website of US media group GOOD Worldwide posed the question: “How powerful is your passport?” It went viral. The post showed a world map and ranked passports by the number of countries its owners can visit without a visa, or with a visa on arrival. The three least-powerful passports are those from Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. These were also the top source countries for asylum seekers, as well as Syria, according to the UNHCR’s most recent global trends report, published in 2014.

The correlation isn’t surprising. Governments tend to introduce visa requirements on the basis of risk and, as Towle explains, “states develop categories of risk…and one category of risk is asylum seeker”.

Australia has a universal visa requirement. All visitors must apply for a visa before travelling here. However, applicants from countries with high numbers of asylum seekers are much less likely to receive visas. It all comes back to risk; the risk that they might apply for asylum upon arrival.

Additionally, the Australian Government lobbies other countries in the region to introduce stricter visa requirements as a way of preventing people reaching Australia. In October 2013, Malaysia introduced stricter visas for people from high asylum source states after a request from the Australian Government. This was in line with the broader trend of attempting to stop asylum seekers at their source.

Of course, people still fly to Australia by plane and apply for asylum, usually on tourist or student visas. But a demographic shift takes place between the types of asylum seekers who travel on boats and those who travel on planes.

The Australian Government’s 2012–2013 ‘Asylum Trends’ report said China was the number one source country of asylum seekers who travel by plane (this category of asylum seeker is jarringly referred to as ‘non-illegal maritime arrivals’.) The report counts 1132 non-illegal maritime arrival applications for asylum lodged by Chinese citizens, compared to 132 from Afghani citizens. The vast majority of people who travel to Australia by boat are from Afghanistan Sri Lanka and Iran, or they are ‘stateless’. This is important because, according to the UNHCR, the total number of refugees originating from Afghanistan is nearly 2.7 million, compared to 200,000 from China.

Other factors play a role, of course, including perceived security risks and diplomatic priorities. It is clear, however, that people attempt to travel to Australia by boat because air travel is not accessible to them. It is because they fall at the bottom of the list of passport power or, for those who are stateless, because any legal travel is impossible.

Again and again human rights abuses have been exposed in Australian-run detention centres. Yet, again and again, the public is told that the benefit of saving lives at sea outweighs these crimes. This logic ignores the fact that travelling by boat is the only option left for those who need to flee torture or death, and that Australia’s policies have made it so. The universe of legitimate travel has been closed off to certain groups of people: the people who have the greatest need to flee.


» Angelica Neville is a writer and researcher. She helps coordinate Behind the Wire, and is co-Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration.

This article first appeared in Ed#484 of The Big Issue.