Desperate bid to reach New Zealand

Last updated 05:00 25/05/2014
Asylum seekers
Eka Nickmatulhuda

IN LIMBO: Cousins, from left, Sajid Hussain, Farman Ali and Haneef Hussain have fled sectarian violence in Gulgit, Pakistan, and are living in Cisarua, Indonesia. 

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On the back streets of Cisarua, Indonesia's asylum seeker hub, the chatter is about New Zealand. There's a rumour circulating in the Afghani community that a boat with 20 passengers has already made it.

It's a false story that people-smugglers are only too happy to spread. They are desperate to get a boat to New Zealand - a treacherous journey of more than 4000km from West Papua, the easternmost point of the Indonesian archipelago - to prove it can be done.

They're even prepared to take a loss, offering berths for as little as $US5000 ($5800) which would barely cover costs.

Fairfax Media is aware of two failed attempts in recent months, one which was disrupted when four asylum seekers were arrested in West Papua on their way to link with a boat, and a cancelled operation that was to have taken a route down Australia's west coast.

Sources in Indonesia said about 50 asylum seekers who had been holed up in a villa in Cisarua, 60km south of Jakarta, were last week taken to meet a boat bound for West Papua, then New Zealand.

Some asylum seekers in Cisarua said they would consider trying to reach New Zealand - but only if a boat got through ahead of them. "If it was possible I try, but it's impossible, it's dangerous," said Mir Abbas, 27, from Pakistan, who was rescued from a vessel which sank while trying to reach Christmas Island, just 200km south of Java. "I promised myself I would never go [by boat] again. I must go by proper channel."

There are more than 10,000 asylum seekers waiting in Indonesia. They arrive at a rate of 100 a week, down from 100 a day when boats were flooding into Australia prior to Operation Sovereign Borders, which gives the Australian navy power to intercept and turn back vessels.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention and therefore asylum seekers are illegal in that country: they are subject to detention, cannot work or send their children to school, and rely on help from their families back home to survive.

If they register with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) they are given papers declaring them asylum seekers and recommending they not be deported - 3000 have already been found to be genuine refugees and are waiting for a resettlement place.

But it takes at least a year to get a resettlement interview, leaving them in limbo. Their options are to stay put and essentially become a non-person, return home to whatever peril they were escaping, or try for Australia and probably end up drowned, returned by the navy or stuck in the detention "gulags" on Manus Island or Nauru.

Then there is the New Zealand option.

"It's expensive here, so costly, so I want to [take] risk - New Zealand, anywhere," said Farman Ali, 40, from Gilgit, Pakistan, which is riven with sectarian violence. Farman has tried twice to reach Australia by boat, and the agent he dealt with is refusing to return his $US12,000, instead offering him a spot on a future boat.

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"My money is lost, it's a problem. The [refugee] camp's not accepting me, what can I do? It [New Zealand] is a long way, it is dangerous I know, but I want to risk."

The Star-Times listened to a secret recording of a money changer talking about a proposed voyage to New Zealand, recorded by a source this month.

The agent said three smugglers had been working together for the past four or five months to find 100 passengers - considered to be the minimum number required for the costly voyage to New Zealand. Middle-men are offered up to $US500 to find potential passengers.

The agent said the smugglers would now settle for as few as 30 people. "Smugglers are saying money is not important, we don't want to benefit off the deal," the agent said, adding that the price would quickly rise to about $US8000 if a boat got through.

"Many passengers come from their home countries [and say] ‘can you send me to Australia, New Zealand'. We say ‘Australia shut the door, Indonesia shut the door, but New Zealand is good option'," the agent said on the tape.

He continued: "All passengers are waiting for getting one boat through. If one boat through, proved getting to New Zealand, more will go. You can be sure if they get to New Zealand, it needs refugees, needs asylum seekers, they are willing, they want people to come, they are looking forward to seeing asylum seekers, they need them because the population is very low."

The agent said he could not guarantee the safety of passengers, but the boat was good and the people-smugglers involved were trustworthy. ‘It's dangerous route. It's your decision, I cannot force you, I can only guarantee you won't lose your money," he said.

These guys [people-smugglers] tell terrible lies," said Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse. "They are heinous criminals . . . it really is a crime of humanity."

He said the promises, including that asylum seekers could obtain residence visas after 35 days, were "just lies, they are exploiting desperate people".

Woodhouse said Australia "turning the tap off" had made New Zealand a "more legitimate destination in the minds of the smugglers" and it was important people understood how perilous such a journey would be.

The Government changed the law last year to allow for "mass arrivals", defined as groups of 30 or more, to be detained for six months. Political opponents who likened the arrival of refugees by boat to an alien invasion were burying their heads in the sand, Woodhouse said. "It would be naive to think it couldn't happen."

But New Zealand's man in Jakarta, Ambassador David Taylor, is skeptical a boat could get through. "The only time I can think of that someone got from Indonesia to New Zealand in a leaky boat was Abel Tasman back in 1642 and it took him six months.

"The boats these people-smugglers are using are mainly wooden, small, they're not ocean fit and they're overcrowded . . . it's a pipe dream that they're going to be able to get to New Zealand."

"Some [smugglers] say ‘we'll get you to New Zealand' not actually intending to get there because they know they can't, [they're] hoping to get to a certain point then duck into Australia, so it's part of their marketing strategy."

Taylor said the New Zealand Government was part of the Bali Process: engaging officials from source, transit and destination countries in talks on how to deal with the people-smuggling problem. The new detention laws in New Zealand were about deterrence, he said. A strong legal framework sent a message to smugglers and asylum seekers.

But Tracey Barnett, author of The Quiet War on Asylum, said New Zealand was "buying into Australia's disastrous policy" on asylum seekers and had been "dead silent" on Australia's "inhumane abuse".

"As long as it's not on our shores, we don't say a word. Suicides, endemic self-harm, indefinite sentences, New Zealand hasn't said a peep. If [a boat] ever does make it here, I only hope they're greeted with the true spirit of this country - with fairness and respect. Australia is setting a dangerous precedent fanned on xenophobia. We need to show the world we are better than that."


Tony Wall contacts a people-smuggler kingpin in Indonesia. 

Murtaza Khan's Facebook page says he lives in Canberra, Australia, and is from the Philippines. That's a ruse - he's actually from Pakistan and lives in Bogor, Indonesia, where he works as a people smuggler.

I obtained Murtaza's mobile phone number and texted him, saying my name was Younus Hussein, I had just arrived in Jakarta from Pakistan and had heard a boat was sailing to New Zealand. Could he help?

A text came back from someone called Rabany, saying "come to Bogor' [60km south of Jakarta]. Then I received a call from an unknown number. I didn't answer, but texted back "who is this?" The message came back: "You call me, I'm Murtaza".

Bingo, I'd made contact with the kingpin.

I'd heard that Murtaza had 48 asylum seekers holed up in a villa in Cisarua, near Bogor, waiting to travel to Jakarta to board boats for New Zealand.

Suspicious that I was not using a local phone, he told me to get an Indonesian one. He seemed eager to help. "I will show the place, don't worry. Call me, I'm waiting," he wrote.

I arranged for an Urdu speaker to call Murtaza using a "burner", a prepaid throwaway phone. He was quick to spill his guts to my contact.

A boat was ready to sail in three days, he claimed. Another boat would travel in convoy, for "safety". The main boat was "big" - 32m long, 7m high.

The boats would be going "Papua way", meaning east from Jakarta to West Papua. Another agent was waiting in Papua.

Murtaza told my contact: "If you give me advance $US500, after you arrive in NZ you give me $US4500. But if you not give me advance, after arrive you will give me $US6000."

In other words, pay a deposit and the overall cost is cheaper. Murtaza claimed the voyage would take 10 to 12 days. He said if the boat made it, New Zealand "must accept, [refugees] can't be returned".

If the Australian navy intercepted the boat, and the passengers ended up being taken to Papua New Guinea or Nauru, no-one would have to pay any money, he claimed.

Sources familiar with Murtaza say he grew up in Parachinar, a tribal area of Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan, and moved to Peshawar, where he set up a travel agency. He began people smuggling while in Peshawar, and was said to have been involved in money and logistics for a boat which sank while trying to reach Christmas Island in 2012, claiming dozens of lives.

He was wanted by authorities in Pakistan, as well as families of asylum seekers there, after taking large sums of money and fleeing to Malaysia, a source said.

The source said Murtaza was lying when he said passengers wouldn't have to pay any money if the boat didn't reach New Zealand. He had paid Murtaza $US10,000, which Murtaza kept when the boat was captured by the Australian navy and returned to Indonesia.

The source said Murtaza had become desperate now that the route to Australia was closed, and was making outlandish promises about New Zealand. "Murtaza is crazy for money," a source said. "If they go to New Zealand, maybe all die because very far, so must stop this way."


Twice Haneef Hussain, 23, has tried to reach Australia: twice his boat has capsized. The second time, in February, the boat was just a couple of kilometres from Christmas Island - he could have swum ashore. Instead he spent 12 days on an Australian navy vessel being grilled by officials, before being sent back to Indonesia.

Hussain and his cousins Farman Ali and Sajid Hussain are from the beautiful, mountainous region of Gilgit-Baltistan in north-east Pakistan, where shi'a muslims like them have been pulled off buses on the main highway and executed. Several of their friends have been killed.

Haneef, a business student, had been considering taking a boat to New Zealand, but after his two near-disasters, his parents instructed him not to try.

So like thousands of other would-be refugees, he lives a life in limbo in Cisarua, a resort town about 60km south of Jakarta popular as a weekend getaway. The Indonesian president has a palace here. It's also popular with asylum seekers because it's relatively cheap, and linked to Jakarta by rail.

Life is boring. The young men live nocturnal lives, sleeping all day or watching television to pass the time. There's nothing much to do - Haneef complains that he can't even play cricket because no-one sells the gear.

Although they are treated well enough by Indonesians, they are also exploited - Haneef was kicked out of a tiny room he was renting with no notice because the landlord found someone willing to pay more. They can pay as much as 1,000,000 rupiah a month ($100) - exorbitant by Indonesian standards. Illness is another problem. The Star-Times spoke to one man who needed injections, medicine and an x-ray but was going to be charged $US1000 by a local doctor.

Haneef and his friends would like to go to New Zealand by legitimate means. What do they know about it? "Peace, not terrorists. Every person is alive in peace. And I like mountains."

- Additional reporting, Michael Bachelard. Fairfax Australia.

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- Sunday Star Times

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