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Bane of the Boat People

Australia's tough policies to deter refugees have been met with equal determination by those risking the trip. Some learn the hard way that they're not welcome.


CISARUA, Indonesia — By day, Amal Hasan dreams of Australia--a utopia where someday she will join her husband, rebuild her life and reside in safety.

But at night when she closes her eyes, her dream turns to horror and she relives the tragedy of Oct. 19, when an overloaded refugee boat taking her to Australia sank off the island of Java, killing hundreds.

Over and over, she sees her fellow refugees struggling underwater, unable to reach the surface. She sees women and children clinging to scraps of wood in the heavy seas and slipping under in exhaustion. She watches as others drift away, never to reappear.

Hasan, a 43-year-old refugee from Iraq, was one of 45 survivors. She said she took a life jacket from a dead woman and then hung on to the corpse for 20 hours to help herself stay afloat until a passing boat rescued her.

Now, stranded in Indonesia, she clings to the hope that she can reach her promised land.

"Everybody on the ship had a dream, a beautiful dream about Australia, but everybody died," she said. "For us, Australia means paradise."

Australia has become the ultimate destination for Asia's new influx of boat people: thousands of refugees, most of whom have fled dictatorial regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and other Islamic countries to seek safety Down Under.

Most are Muslims who claim to be victims of persecution and request political asylum. They are willing to risk their lives for the chance to live in a Western-style democracy that offers freedom of worship and respect for human rights. They believe that Australia's distance from their homelands will make it harder for their despotic rulers to hunt them down. They picture Australia as a free and open society with employment and educational opportunities.

Australia has done all it can to stop the flow of asylum seekers--blockading their boats, locking up every refugee who reaches land and denying full rights to those granted asylum.

But they keep coming, believing that the hardships that lie ahead are less severe than those they left behind.

The determination is apparent among survivors of the October sinking. Many said they would cross the sea again on the same kind of old wooden vessel.

"Our goal was Australia--die or Australia," said Ali Hamid Ahmad, 28, an Iraqi electrician who survived by holding on to a piece of wood but lost a cousin. "We have nothing else to fear now. If there is a boat, we will go."

In Australia, some relatives of the victims charge that the government's refugee policies contributed to the deaths.

Australia tightened its rules in October 1999 so that refugees granted asylum after that point can receive only temporary visas. Unlike earlier arrivals, they cannot bring their families to join them in Australia for at least three years, and perhaps never. If they leave Australia, they are not allowed to return.

The prospect of not seeing their families for many years prompted those who had stayed behind to attempt the same journey. Many passengers of the doomed boat were women and children traveling to join husbands and fathers who had received asylum. Of the 373 who drowned, 147 were children and 141 were women.

Ali Mehdi Sobie, who said he was tortured by the Iraqi government and who was granted asylum by Australia, is a sad and angry man. He last saw his wife and daughters in September 1999. They died trying to reach him. Sitting on the floor of a friend's living room in a Sydney suburb, he holds a year-old photo of his girls and fights to hold back the tears.

"Under this temporary visa, you don't have the right to bring your family and you don't have the right to visit them," he said. "They didn't have a chance of seeing me for three years. I told them not to come this way. They told me they couldn't wait forever."

The number of asylum seekers heading to Australia began spiking in the late 1990s. But the government's tolerance for Islamic asylum seekers quickly evaporated, and it began enacting tough policies to deter future arrivals.

For now, the government has nearly succeeded in thwarting the asylum seekers with a combination of naval patrols to stop their boats and harsher rules for the few who manage to slip through the blockade.

The path that the refugees follow from Afghanistan and the Middle East is well traveled. Fleeing the repressive governments of their homelands, they first reach safety in neighboring countries such as Pakistan or Iran. Those with enough money stay only a few days. Others languish in refugee camps for years.

Their next destination is Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. A predominantly Muslim country, Malaysia grants open entry to citizens of other Islamic countries.

From there, some fly directly to Sydney but most go by boat to Indonesia, a vast archipelago whose porous borders are easy to cross illegally. Once in Indonesia, the refugees entrust their lives to avaricious smugglers who pack them aboard leaky wooden boats at $1,000 a head for the perilous 300-mile journey to northern Australia.

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