Resort Of Last Resort
By Aubrey BelfordApril 5, 2013
Fear, corruption, boredom, smugglers, extortionists, Saudi sex tourists and temporary wives: such is life in the Indonesian resort town that has become limbo for asylum seekers.
Night is enveloping the hills of Cisarua, a resort town high outside Jakarta, and the area’s evening rituals are beginning. Rainwater thunders down from nearby mountaintops along hundreds of canals and rivulets that go whooshing on into the polluted sink that is Indonesia’s capital.
Across the bowl-shaped valley, dozens of mosques begin booming the call to prayer, all merging together into an asynchronous whine. In hillside villas, groups of men from Saudi Arabia — some in traditional white thawb robes, some in baggy track pants – load up on the evening’s stock of alcohol, which is banned in their home country. On motorbikes and in cars, pimps begin ferrying in the men’s other vice — Arabic-speaking Indonesian women.
(See the photos behind the story: Barat Ali Batoor’s series from Cisarua, In Between Persecution And Asylum.)
In other rented houses, hundreds of asylum seekers sit with little to do. Many have become near-nocturnal out of sheer boredom, and are just starting their day. Over the past decade, the town has become the unofficial haven for asylum seekers heading to Australia. For some, it is a brief stopover before they jump on a smuggler’s boat. For others, it is a limbo that can last for years.
Haider — not his real name — is sitting in a living room with half-a-dozen other men who, like him, are Hazaras from the Pakistani city of Quetta. All appear drawn and exhausted. One of the men, Ghulam Reza, sits with his foot extended because of an untreated, bloody gash.
The night before, the men joined about 100 more asylum seekers in a convoy of cars bound for Java’s south coast, where a people smuggler had a boat waiting to take them to Christmas Island. But, most likely because of a tip-off, the police intercepted them, turning their convoy around under guard toward an immigration detention centre. Rather than face detention, dozens of the asylum seekers commandeered the cars from their Indonesian drivers, and pulled them to a stop. Men, women and children then scattered on foot through the surrounding wet rice paddies and small stands of forest.
Haider and his friends were among those who made it back. If he had been caught on the way, he would now be languishing inside an Indonesian immigration detention centre or a guarded guesthouse, staring down what could be months or years of confinement.
But in this town, Haider is safe. “Once you come to Bogor and reach your place, there it’s not a problem,” he says (Bogor is the district surrounding the town of Cisarua). Despite harsh detention times, scores of asylum seekers escape every week from Indonesia’s porous detention centres, or bribe their way out. And they come back here, where apparently the pursuit ends. They are seldom followed here. “Definitely, it’s quite strange,” says Haider.
Once on a boat to Australia, asylum seekers tend to generate headlines, whether they make it to their destination or drown on the way. But often overlooked are the inner workings of a state of limbo that has become the norm for these people once they reach Indonesia; it’s a key transit point, mainly for asylum seekers who come from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Burma.
True numbers of transients are fuzzy, but certainly those numbers are increasing. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says there are more than 7,200 registered asylum seekers in Indonesia. Nearly 2,000 more people living in Indonesia have been found to be refugees by the UNHCR, and about 750 have had their cases for resettlement forwarded to a third country. (By comparison, in June last year these numbers were 4,766 asylum seekers and 1,219 refugees.)
Indonesia does not take refugees on a permanent basis. Those living here while waiting for their claims to be heard or for resettlement are barred from working or sending their kids to Indonesian schools. If you are registered with the UNHCR you are, technically, allowed to live in the community, but being caught without your papers — or while trying to hop on a boat to Australia — is likely to get you a ticket to detention.
Sitting above the smog of Jakarta, Cisarua also has a few other advantages for its transient population: it’s cheap, the area is used to keeping open secrets, and the people smugglers know it well. The town is part of a strip, known as Puncak, that has long been a popular weekend getaway of Jakarta’s middle class. On weekends, the area’s single main road is choked with cars and buses that crawl up through the mountainside tea plantations.
In the 1990s, the town started earning a reputation as a sex-holiday destination for men from the Middle East, mostly Saudis. Puncak is the punchline for a practice known in Indonesia as “contract marriages” — a kind of loophole used by some visitors to give an Islamic veneer to prostitution. The practice usually involves a man offering a bride price in the range of 20 million to 30 million rupiah (about AUD 2,000-3,000) for a woman, explains Hendi, a driver and pimp. A local cleric will officiate and once the holiday is done – which may be in three days or three months — the man goes home, no questions asked. Under this system, women tend to marry multiple times. It is a deeply exploitative trade, which is accompanied by even more prevalent regular prostitution.
National disgust and stricter law enforcement has reduced the trade, locals say, as has a realisation among many tourists that the brides on offer were often experienced sex workers. Yet the business lives on.
“The Arabs have worked out the girls aren’t virgins, so we get younger girls,” Hendi explains. “I can get 14-, 15-year-olds. With them you can’t tell the difference, even though they’re not virgins either.”
Around the turn of the 20th century, Cisarua — with its expat Arab population, and locals who speak passable Arabic — became a natural destination for Iraqis fleeing Saddam Hussein. Persian-speaking Afghan Hazaras and other nationalities soon followed.
These days, asylum seekers and the Saudi tourists live separately but in parallel, kept apart by differences in wealth, culture and the knowledge that for some returning home is not an option. Asylum seekers often view the Saudis, and the Sunni theocracy from which they come, with disdain.
After arriving in Indonesia — often on smuggler-sponsored routes across Asia, on which a guide costs between $6,000 and $12,000 per person — asylum seekers usually follow a well-defined path to the area around Jalan Jaksa, a seedy strip of bars and hotels in central Jakarta. Nearby is the UNHCR office, where people put their names down for asylum-seeker status. Securing an interview usually takes many months, which is in turn followed by a long wait for any sort of decision on their case. Being resettled in another country can take years, and relatively few achieve it. In the meantime, adults are forbidden to work, and children have very little chance of receiving a proper education.
Scouts for the people smugglers scope out the area around Jalan Jaksa for potential customers. Asylum seekers pass around numbers for contacting smugglers, often via the smugglers’ low-level operatives. Some asylum seekers depart with the smugglers within a matter of days, at an average cost of about $5,000 per person. Some arrive in Indonesia with no plan to catch a boat, no matter how long the legitimate resettlement process might take. Others find out they have too little money for the trip. Others lose their nerve when they realise just how likely they are to become one of the hundreds who die at sea.
CISARUA IS WHERE PEOPLE WAIT, for either the slow wheels of UN bureaucracy to turn, or for the sudden call from a smugglers’ agent: get your things ready, eat, we’re leaving tonight.
Driving through Cisarua at night, you notice, on top of the chaos of any Indonesian town, the disproportionately large numbers of young foreign men. Shia Muslim Hazaras from both sides of the deadly Afghanistan-Pakistan border form the largest group; they are men with Asian features who, in a few cases, can pass for Indonesians. The Afghans among them are usually fleeing the Taliban, which is resurgent in much of the country. The Pakistanis are fleeing another Taliban-like group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which has killed hundreds of Hazaras this year in assassinations and bombings.
The young men are often sent as representatives of a family, on the assumption that they can work to support themselves in Australia, maybe send some money back, and eventually sponsor the emigration of their relatives.
Flurries of activity around these streets tend to be the result of grim news. When a boat sinks or goes missing on its way to Australia, for example, the desperate calls from relatives start coming in to acquaintances still here. Information — on who is missing, who has been detained, who has escaped, and who has bribed their way out — moves quickly.
But generally the young men sleep until late in the day and wander around at night. This has annoyed the local government so much that the subdistrict chief, Teddi Pembang, is trying to get all asylum seekers moved down into the nearby city of Bogor.
As one local official, Koko Kosasih says: “Day is night for them and night is day. It’s a cultural difference. This is a Muslim community. People here are trying to sleep and they’re out on the streets, sexually harassing women.”
Cisarua has become a town filled with the young and bored.
“What should we do, sir?” asylum seeker Ghulam Rasool Haidari asks me. “Everything, like, every day — it repeats.”
Rasool is a 17-year-old from the dangerous Afghan province of Ghazni. He shares two small rooms with seven other Afghans, mostly from his home district. All of them arrived last year, but only one, Zakaria Turabi, also 17, has ever set foot on a boat. It was the same boat boarded last year by The Global Mail’s photographer, Barat Ali Batoor, and which ran aground on Java.
All of this group say they lack the money and the appetite for a journey by sea, so they simply wait for their cases to be processed by the UNHCR. Long lines often form at Internet cafes and clumps of men spend hours in front of the local supermarket, Britania, just passing the time. One afternoon I see an Iranian man, accompanied by a local woman, arrive at the supermarket in a Jakarta taxi. He confers with a group of Hazara men and paces the lot, talking into his phone, before hopping back into the car and heading for town. It’s as close as I get to sighting an actual smuggler, and there’s no way to know for sure that that is what he was.
Many asylum seekers have the same experience. “Nobody can see the smugglers, where they live, where they are,” says Rasool. “We just contact by phone.”
There are things a young man can do here if he has some money, as do a small number of them. While most asylum seekers only travel to Jakarta for appointments with the UNHCR, a few make forays into Jakarta’s 24-hour nightlife. Clubs such as the drug-soaked multilevel Chinatown establishment, Stadium, and hotel bars are also popular with many smugglers.
Among the asylum seekers, Iranians tend to have the most money. Hazaras frequently mutter that they suspect the Iranians of faking their asylum-seeker claims.
With work banned, one of the only ways to actually earn money is to help the smugglers. Many of the big operators have no claim to asylum themselves, but their subordinates are often asylum seekers. Working as a smugglers’ agent can bring in decent money, as well as a free berth on a boat to Australia in the future.
Rasool and his friends have little love for the smugglers. “These smugglers are frauds, they’re liars. They take a huge amount from people and don’t spend it on the boats. If the smugglers spent it properly we wouldn’t have all these tragedies,” says Ahmad Aloudal, a 30-year-old from Afghanistan’s Taliban-hit Ghazni province.
But opinions are divided on whether it’s acceptable to work for such fraudulent operators.
“People whose patience and money runs out are forced to start working with the smugglers,” says Mahmoud Muradi, also from Ghazni. “It’s not okay. Smuggling itself is a crime.”
His friend Juma Fayazi sees it differently. Sure, smugglers “take us and they kill us,” he says. “But I think it’s alright if people work for them. They have no other option.”
Down in Jakarta, I meet a man who has found a way to make money from the smugglers, without joining the game. Younes — not his real name — takes the smugglers’ money, but hates them. He’s also a misfit among his own people in Indonesia, which is why he lives apart from others of his community. A Pakistani Hazara with an obvious air of recklessness, he says he is not a victim of the Taliban and its allies, but claims that he fled Pakistan after being arrested and beaten at the behest of conservative Shia clerics.
When Younes arrived in Indonesia in 2012, he didn’t have enough money to get on a boat. What he did have was Indonesian language skills from an earlier, four-year stint in the country. Back then, a decade ago, a boat he boarded sank not far off the coast. Younes says when the smugglers then refused to return his money, he simply stole it back.
Younes says he has made money by extorting smugglers twice in the past year. Taking up position near Jalan Jaksa, he waits to spot agents as they deal with new arrivals. He then approaches with the help of Indonesian acquaintances. Sometimes they are women — “just bitches”, he explains, meaning sex workers – and sometimes men, street characters from central Jakarta. They then demand money from the smuggler, using various threats and assumed personas as persuasion.
For example, Younes describes his latest such robbery: “I have some Indonesian friends. I told them a game we’re going to do, something like that. You pretend to be a policeman, police for foreigners, without any uniform. So I just blame [the smuggler, saying], ‘He’s mafia and he took from me $5,000 to send me to Australia but he cheated me.’
“I tell the guy [the smuggler]: ‘He’s a policeman.’ And my friend takes his hand, ‘Let’s go to the police station.’ He’s scared. He knows that if he goes inside, they have to pay more than US $100,000. So I just took his bag. Inside the bag was $20,000. But I share with the Indonesians.”
Younes’ take-home pay from that encounter was $10,000 — more than enough for a spot on a boat, but not enough to erase the bad name he has earned among the smugglers.
He loathes them all, yet he says, “I’m happy if the smugglers send my people safely to Australia, because all the Hazaras came here to reach Australia.
“[But] if someone does the overloading [of boats], I really want to fuck them.”
WITH ITS VIEW ACROSS A TERRACED, EMERALD VALLEY, the house in Cisarua in which four families wait for their future to begin appears at first to be idyllic. But signs of decay ruin the effect: a swimming pool, drained but for ankle-deep, green sludge; a stack of rotting timber and asbestos roofing; a crumbling concrete giraffe painted brown with white spots.
Each family lives in a separate section, divided from the others by plywood partitions. Rukhsana Jaffary, her husband and her three children arrived from Quetta, Pakistan, in February 2002, and say they have never intended to get on a boat. The total cost of some $25,000 is just too much.
They are among about 3,000 people in Indonesia receiving housing and a modest stipend – about $125 per person per month — from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), while they await processing of their asylum claims. But the family is facing a crunch: their claim has been rejected. If an appeal fails, they will lose the home and the stipend.
“Every time I wake up, the feeling is just uncertainty,” says Jaffary. “We wake up each day hoping this will be the last morning, that we’ll be able to start living normally again,” she says.
“Pakistan is finished. I wish Pakistan got better. We’d go back. We were happy there. Nothing can replace where you were born.”
Jaffary blames the failure of their claim so far on poor translation and the complexity of their case. Her husband, Ghulam Raza, is an Afghan citizen who has lived in Iran and claims to be the subject of a decades-long blood feud which would see him persecuted in Afghanistan, Iran or Pakistan, were they to return to any of these countries.
A final rejection of their claim would also mean the family’s children, who range between six and 12 years old, would lose the three days a week of education they are getting from an IOM school — which has still not been enough to stop them falling behind their peers who receive full-time schooling.
So Jaffary asks me a question I can’t answer: “If the UNHCR rejects us, should we take a boat to Australia?”
Upstairs, in another section of the house, Mehdi Javid Kian Ali, a 37-year-old, exists in a similar limbo with his wife, Elaheh, and their six-year-old daughter, Asal, a curly-haired girl with a permanent dimpled smile. They are also UNHCR rejects who are appealing the decision on their case for the same reason: poor translation.
Before being moved into this home, the family had spent nearly two years in detention in converted cheap hotels, after their attempt to board a boat was foiled. At one stage in the ensuing proceedings, Kian Ali claims that police, immigration officials and smugglers offered them a chance to bribe their way out of detention. It was an opportunity they declined; and that turned out to be a good thing.
“The police came down to bargain. ‘We’ll let you go with the boat. For $1,000 you can leave’,” he recalls. “The smugglers came and the guards were very polite to them. We didn’t have the money but the other families went. They got out and drove three metres down the street before the police jumped out with guns drawn and stopped them again and brought them back into detention. The guards charged them $200 to get each of their bags back. But when they got them all their cameras, jewellery and valuables were missing.”
Kian Ali’s claim for asylum is a simple one for a citizen of the Islamic Republic of Iran: he doesn’t believe in God. As a young man, Kian Ali claims to have worked for Iran’s notorious Revolutionary Guard, during which time he observed close-up the torture of opponents of the regime at Tehran’s Prison 59. The treatment that particularly got to him, he says, was the practice of using funnels to insert boiled eggs into the vaginas and anuses of detainees. “This was all in the name of Islam.”
It quickly becomes that Kian Ali is not the kind of man who keeps his head down and his opinions to himself. “I’m anti-Shia, I’m anti-Islam. If you hand me a rocket launcher, I’ll blow up the Kaaba,” he says, referring to Islam’s holiest site.
To demonstrate more reasons why he now so hates the religion of his birth, he pulls out a tablet computer and loads a video. It shows a beheading, one of the many gruesome recordings to come out of the Syrian civil war. It’s not his home country, but he sees all such religiously motivated brutality as linked.
I try to change the subject, but Kian Ali insists: he holds the screen in front of my face and makes me watch the footage of a terrified young man, a government soldier and presumably a Shia, being held to the ground with a knife to his throat. His captors, Sunni extremist rebels, intone in Arabic, cursing him as an idolator and an enemy of the faith. Wielded with a rapid sawing motion, the knife cuts through the man’s throat and blood surges onto the ground. Kian Ali moves the screen closer. Finally, the dead man’s head is separated from his body and triumphantly rested on his chest.
Kian Ali takes the tablet away. He gets up and moves to the edge of his bed, leans forward and sighs. Outside the clouds tear open and it starts bucketing rain, just as it does almost every day at this time of year.