Photojournalist Barat Ali Batoor, 29, is a Hazara asylum seeker who fled Afghanistan — with his camera. UPDATE: On 14 October 2013, the image above was named Nikon-Walkley Photo Of The Year, the highest honour. On November 28, the photo essay below took out the Walkley Award for Photographic Essay of the Year.
He journeyed on a route similar to that taken by thousands of Hazara asylum seekers. From Afghanistan, he travelled through Pakistan and then flew to Thailand, from where he traveled by land, sea and air through Malaysia and Indonesia. From outside Jakarta he boarded a boat to Australia, but when it started to sink, he jumped off in the jungles of western Java. After two days of wandering with other asylum seekers, he was picked up, detained, and then escaped.
This exclusive photo essay shows Batoor’s trip, up to the point where his camera got soaked when the boat sank. His images are an incredible record of life and the presence of death on the road to a new life in Australia.
You can read the full story of Batoor and another asylum seeker, Barkat Ali, and listen to Batoor’s audio account of the journey here.
The first day at sea.
The first part of the land and sea journey begins after asylum seekers fly into Thailand. Here, Syed Arif, an Afghan asylum seeker, stares out of a hotel window in the southern border town of Sungai Kolok. The town is in an area affected by a brutal insurgency that has killed more than 5,000 people since 2004
A Thai people smuggler shouts over to asylum seekers waiting to take a boat across the border to Malaysia. After crossing, Batoor and three other asylum seekers travelled by car to Kuala Lumpur.
Hazara asylum seekers praying in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, before making the crossing to Indonesia. Nearly 20 asylum seekers were locked in this safe house for three days before boarding vans and then a boat across the Malacca Straits to Sumatra.
Asylum seekers pay an Indonesian people smuggler (centre, squatting) on the Indonesian island of Sumatra while arranging the next leg of their trip to Jakarta..
A shelter for underaged asylum seekers in Puncak, outside of Jakarta. The Puncak area is a strip of hillside holiday towns that has become a safe haven and staging post for asylum seekers. Those awaiting boats to Australia while away their time here until their chance to travel. Others, who have survived sinking boats and have avoided or escaped detention, usually find their way back here to start again.
A house in Puncak. The man swimming in this photo is known to Batoor only as “Shabir”. Shabir, an Afghan Hazara, was one of more than 150 asylum seekers on a boat that sank off Java in late August. Only 55 people were found alive at sea. Shabir was never seen again.
Hazara asylum seekers waiting outside an internet café in Puncak. Hazaras use prepaid mobile phones and internet to keep in touch with family back home and to send for money when they run out.
Batoor was one of about 90 asylum seekers who left Java for Australia in the early hours of September 21. Most asylum seekers were made to hide below deck, to avoid arousing suspicion. On the first day at sea, when this shot was taken, the weather at sea was calm.
By nightfall, the weather had turned bad. Passengers below decks started vomiting as the boat filled with water.
Batoor recalls: “Finally the captain told us: ‘The boat is not in a good condition … if you go ahead, I will take you, but that is completely, 100 per cent death.’” The boat turned back towards Indonesia, and ran aground in thick forest in western Java. Batoor’s camera was damaged by water while leaving the boat. He and a group of asylum seekers spent two days in the jungle before they hailed a boat, which then handed them into detention. Batoor and some other asylum seekers soon escaped, and returned to Puncak.
Watch Batoor’s story on SBS Dateline here.