At the knife’s edge

By Robin de Crespigny | 31 Dec 15
25 minute read
I spent three days with Yaser Naseri recording his story from every angle. As English is not his first language I have reworked some of the material, so while it is not always exactly his words the events are entirely his.

“I saw a man screaming for his baby son, another howling for someone to help his mother who struggled amongst the waves to reach the boat, only to be flung off before she could take hold. I know that he can swim, I knew him, but he is paralysed by the fear. He clenches his hands and cries out for help like a child in despair. No one was paying attention to anyone. Everyone was a knife edge away from their own death.”

Yaser Naseri speaks quietly, a gentle, 30-something Iranian man whose boat, carrying 250 asylum seekers and refugees bound for Australia, sank just 40 nautical miles off the Java Coast of Indonesia in December 2011. He was one of only 47 survivors.

“You should have been there, you should have seen it, just water everywhere with waves five metres high, coming from every direction. You are sitting on the bottom of the boat which is upside down and rolls over each time a wave hits,” Yaser continues. “As it rolls everyone is flung off or dragged under and swept inside the vessel where broken bodies are tangled amongst ropes and lumps of timber. Each time it comes up again there are less people clambering to get back on.”

Yaser and I are sitting on the veranda of a café in an old colonial house near the gateway of the Parramatta Park in Sydney. I can remember the media coverage at the time and I try to imagine the horror of dying in the ocean, alone or with loved ones floundering around you. But only the statistics seemed real: another 200 deaths to be tallied against the government of the day.

I am pulled from my reverie by the arrival of our coffee and note the irony of sitting amongst the tranquil beauty of the park while hearing the horror of Yaser’s experience. How many of us are truly able to empathise with the desperation and courage it must take to embark on a journey such as this? Especially when you are already traumatised by what you are leaving.

In 2009-10 Yaser had participated in the Green Revolution in Iran, which rose up against the allegedly corrupt election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was intent on imposing an Islamic State with Sharia Law on his people. When his close friend was executed, Yaser escaped a similar fate by fleeing with the hope of reaching protection in Australia.

*          *          *

Yaser tells me how he and the other asylum seekers – mostly Iranians and Afghanis, but also Syrians, Iraqis, Sudanese and others – were happy when they first saw the boat which they believed would bring them to Australia. Usually smugglers use smaller fishing boats but this boat – the Barokah – was a huge square-shaped hulk that looked solid, though it was designed to carry produce, not people.

But once the boat was full they could see there were far too many people, but nobody wanted to get off. Most of them could not go back to their own countries. Some, like Yaser, had tried to get a boat many times but failed and others, their three-month visas having expired, had been waiting in Indonesia for years struggling to stay alive in urban areas, where 72 per cent of asylum seekers hide. They have no work rights so most of them live on their wits in extreme poverty and deprivation.

“The families were on the upper deck with a tarp tied above them for protection,” Yaser says. “I was on the lower deck with over a hundred, mainly single, men.

“There was a long table bolted to the floor for preparing produce, with a narrow walkway around it and two windows about one metre square, opening onto the sea on each side. I don’t know why, but the crew came in the night and nailed up the ones on the left with canvas. Maybe to stop the wind blowing water in. A lot of people were packed together like sardines under the table but I grabbed a spot on top of it near one of the open windows.

“The engine ran well and a young Indonesian crew regularly attended to it, but the sound of it was deafening, and the smell of diesel mixed with vomit on the floor from people who were seasick was terrible. They should have put their heads out the window but probably they were scared of the sea.

“A group of us stayed awake all night chatting, excited, afraid; we had heard lots of stories of boats sinking. There was a Pakistani guy on our deck who had sunk, swam to shore and tried again five times. No one knew how many of his family he might have lost but he was now a little crazy. He continually walked around checking things, and tapping the walls. He was very anxious and angry, and shouting at people to be careful, not to all go to one side or the other and unbalance the boat.

“It was so crowded people had to sleep around the engine, so at dawn some of them began going quietly upstairs for fresh air and to watch the sunrise. The crew, just young boys, were not controlling who went where and the Pakistani must have exhausted his rage and fallen asleep.

“There was a kitchen stocked with plenty of watermelon, eggs, and noodles so when we saw the sun rising we decided to have some food, then try to sleep. We stood by the window looking out while we ate and for the first time I saw some flying fish.

“When I got on the table and pulled my bag behind my head to lie down, the boat began to roll. I was thinking the extra people would have made it heavier on top and wished the Pakistani was at hand to yell at them to stop unbalancing it.

“I felt the boat tip with the waves to one side then to the other, then this side, then that. But suddenly it didn’t come back. I was thinking: ‘We have rolled too far. We are going into the ocean.’ It happened in a second but I knew we were gone.”

*          *          *

“The boat was shaped like a box and had rolled onto its side with the water blasting in through the two uncovered windows, which were now below us. It made a terrible sound, louder than the engine, which began to splutter and stop.”

In a flash around a hundred mostly sleeping people were thrown through the air, smashing into walls, the edge of the table, flying objects, luggage and each other, splitting heads and breaking limbs as they plummeted into water that belched up through the only exits with the force of the Indian Ocean behind it.

“In that moment I took my left hand like this,” Yaser is standing up in the café reaching for the ceiling, and I have forgotten where we are. “I grabbed the edge of the table which was the only thing that saved me. Otherwise I would have slid off it and into the mass of bodies swirling below me. I hung there while people were falling down like from the sky, as the water rushed up to meet us.

“Some people were getting out but mostly they were entangled and clawing at each other, screaming as they tried to get through the bodies stacking up and blocking their escape. They grabbed anything and if it was your clothes you couldn’t get away. Maybe that is why I later saw a dead woman in the water completely naked. Perhaps it was the only way she could get free but it took too long and she drowned anyway.

“The windows on the other side were now above us but they were blocked with the canvas. As the water pushed us higher I saw a man swim and somehow punch and rip it out. I let go of the table and reached both hands up, and the water from below must have blasted me out into the ocean.

“I came to the surface with my lungs almost bursting. It only felt like five seconds since I had shot out the window but already the upturned boat was now over 500 metres away. I was surrounded with dead bodies and people screaming and thrashing in the sea. Some were hanging onto floating wreckage, or the box that the life jackets were in. I had seen the jackets on the boat when we embarked, but they were never distributed.”

*          *          *

My mind jumps to the very young, inexperienced crew. They might have grown up on fishing boats in coastal waters, but were unlikely to be capable of taking charge of 250 foreign passengers who spoke different languages, or of mastering the open sea when they turned from the coastal waters of southern Java towards Christmas Island.

Smugglers employ young boys as crew because if they are over 18 and caught by the Australian officials, they are charged with people smuggling and imprisoned for five years. Consequently they use boys as young as 14 to avoid them being assessed and imprisoned as adults.

When Australia “turns back boats” – even when we replace the one we intercepted – they are returned with the same captain and “child” crew.

*          *          *

When I first heard Yaser’s story I was concerned it could justify boat “turn backs”, in the name of saving lives at sea. But it was 27 November, 2015 and I had just heard about a boat carrying 16 asylum seekers who had been found stranded near West Kupang in Indonesia. They had made it to within 200 metres of Christmas Island when the Australian Navy towed them back out to sea, after which they had disappeared.

They had been put on another boat but with only enough fuel to reach Indonesia, as is repeatedly the case under our tow-back policy. Any divergence from the route or bad weather could leave the boat lost in perilous seas. The Indian Ocean is wild and dangerous, especially in late November at the beginning of the monsoons.

If deaths at sea were truthfully our concern, with the journey from Indonesia being such a  treacherous one, we would be relieved when the boats reached Christmas Island safely. Instead, we force people seeking asylum to risk the journey again in reverse, crossing Indonesian waters in the same ocean where the tragedy of the Barokah occurred.

After the turn-back policy was first introduced by John Howard as Operation Relex in 2001, two boats sank during the return process. The engine of another died 400 metres from Indonesia’s shore leaving 88 passengers to swim or wade to the beach. Three reportedly drowned.

Another one exploded, killing two of the 160 asylum seekers on board with many others, including Australian officials, injured. Asylum seekers are often so terrified of being sent back to detention or refoulment ­– being returned to their country of persecution – they will do anything to prevent it, including harming the boat and themselves.

*          *          *

While we squabble about shortage of funds for improvements to education and health there appears to be no limit to what can be spent on turning boats back. While we spend our fortunes on stopping people from exercising their right to seek asylum here, many other countries, especially now with the Syrian crisis, are spending that kind of money on taking them in.

The Abbott Government set up Operation Sovereign Borders in 2013 at a cost of around $400 million a year and all matters concerning asylum seeker activities went underground in the name of “border security”.

The Australian public was first alerted to the use of orange, capsule-like lifeboats as an alternative to tow-backs when one was found on a remote shore of Indonesia’s West Java. About 60 people had emerged and been seen dirty, distraught and running into the jungle, where three of them died after they wandered lost and terrified for several days.

In March 2014, the third group of asylum seekers was turned back in one of these strange capsules, claiming they were tricked into boarding by being told they were going to Christmas Island. It ran aground in huge seas 30 metres from the Indonesian shore. Another few hundred metres out and it could have been a disaster.

Even though these lifeboats were fully enclosed and submersible, if they hit the five-metre waves that the Barokah encountered, there is every chance they would run out of fuel. With the veil of secrecy that surrounds the turn-back operations, we may never know if any of these lifeboats ended up with its passengers dying a terrible death at sea, sealed in a hot, dark, suffocating capsule reeking of seasickness.

In March 2014 the Abbott Government tripled the amount of money spent on these orange capsules to $7.5 million, each costing between $46,000 to $200,000, and abandoned after one use.

According to documents obtained by Fairfax Media, another $5.7 million was spent on technology to locate “security threats” on the water before they reach Australia. Another $16.8 million was spent on six months usage of the naval vessel, Triton, and a further $25 million for the armed patrol vessel.

But this was only the beginning. With our current regime of “deterrence”, which punishes those who arrive by boat after 1 July 2014 with incarcera on Manus Island and Nauru, official government figures show the total costs of detention and compliance-related programs for these asylum seekers will be $2.30 billion in 2015–16.

*          *          *

With ongoing lack of transparency around the turn-back operations, which continue to be referred to obliquely as “on-water operational matters“, the Abbott Government decided to replace the controversial orange lifeboats with 10 custom-made “alternative transportation vessels” resembling Asian fishing boats to be built in Vietnam. They refused to answer questions on the cost, but it is purported to be a “multi-million dollar” deal.

Meanwhile $42,000 of taxpayers’ money was paid to people smugglers to turn back a boat of 65 asylum seekers to Indonesia – a payment the Indonesian prosecutor described as “alleged bribery money by the Australian government”.

The police chief of Nusa Tenggara Timur province who oversaw the investigation told Fairfax Media that the scheme was akin to a “suicide mission”, as the return boats lacked adequate navigational systems and fuel. Amnesty International reported that by paying people smugglers, Australia has committed a transnational crime.

Fifteen boats carrying 429 asylum seekers have been forcibly returned to Indonesia and Sri Lanka since the commencement of Operation Sovereign Borders; some in orange lifeboats, some simply towed back, some handed over to the navies of their country of persecution, such as Sri Lanka. The United Nations opposes Australia’s actions.

*          *          *

“After the Barokah capsized,” Yaser tells me, “there were people everywhere hanging off pieces of splintered wood. Amongst them were the dead, some mangled and broken, others serene and lolling on the waves as they rolled from crest to crest.

“Everyone was in shock and didn’t know what to do. We wanted to go back to the boat but the ocean is not like a pool. I was a good swimmer and had swum in the sea, but I was as frightened as those who couldn’t swim.”

“When my friend said: ‘I’m going’, I let go and swam, but something pulled me back. I thought I was being dragged under and I panicked and yelled for help until I saw bits of rope and realised some of it was around my feet. I managed to get untangled and set off again.

“I will never forget the face of a man who said: ‘I want to come but I can’t swim.’ He knew it meant that one by one they would let go and be swallowed by the sea.”

As we sipped our coffee in the Parramatta café I thought of each one of those people; a life that could have been lived. I thought about how we contributed $90 million to search the bottom of the ocean for Malaysian Airlines jet MH370, but for these poor souls even a fly over with one of our Orion air rescue planes to drop inflatable boats would be unlikely to be negotiated.

I suggest, thinking how trite anything I said would sound after bearing witness to such a human catastrophe, that at least now he had the upturned boat to sit on and just had to wait and pray for a passing fisherman.

Yaser looked at me incredulously. “No,” he said. “This is where it really began. The ship was on its side and rolling with 80 to a hundred people on it. But there was nothing to hold on to. The outside of the boat was covered in slippery green moss and barnacles, and protruding nails tore at our flesh each time we rolled again.

“The windows were like big square holes in the side of the boat so we sat around the edge with our feet inside and the people like chains behind us, hanging on with arms around each other’s waists, sliding and grappling for a foothold.

“Each time a wave would surge into the boat it would push the dead up through the window where our legs hung down. They were too heavy for us to lift out, so we had to push them away with our feet and pray they would not belch up again. It was like a terrifying movie.

“One person would cry out: ‘Jesus’ and everyone would follow. It didn’t matter if they were Christian, Muslim or whatever. Many people were shouting: ‘Ya Hossein’ and ‘Allah’, and united by terror everyone followed that too. I saw the man who had lost his baby hollering into the wind, and a lady with children weeping. She put them in the middle of us to hold on, but next time we rolled they were gone.

“I learnt when I saw a big wave coming I could jump before it hit, then swim away as fast as I could so the boat wouldn’t crash on me, but many died because they tried to hold on to the boat and it would smash them into the sea. Others grabbed each other and when they went under climbed up onto the other person’s shoulders and both would drown. Or they held on to a dangling rope and came up strangled by it.

“Others died from fear. While you were being battered by waves from everywhere, you were watching underneath. It was light for a few metres, then dark like outer space and all you can think about was sharks and how deep it was.”

For three or four hours the survivors clung on, their fingers torn and too numb to grip, when suddenly a small fishing boat appeared on the horizon.

*          *          *

I looked into Yaser’s face expecting relief but all I saw was grief. “At first we were afraid it was a mirage but soon it got close enough to be sure it was real and everyone began screaming and waving.

“But then it stopped,” he says, his voice wavering. He knew if it got too close everyone would jump in and it would sink, but it also meant that only those who could swim would be saved. Yaser says 34 of them made it to the fishing boat before the fisherman said: “Enough! If I take anymore we will all die.”

“So he opened the throttle and we had to watch men swimming, screaming and trying to get to us before we abandoned them in the sea. I called out: ‘We will send help back for you. Just hang on.’ But as we headed for Indonesia we knew that while there was nothing we could have done, they would haunt our dreams and survivor guilt would be with us forever.

“The fisherman called the authorities once we got under way, which sent a ripple of relief through all of us to know help would be coming.

“Then a small miracle became evident. My friend had somehow carried a baby boy with him when we swam to the fishing boat. I had seen the distraught father on the wreckage as we rolled in the sea, but he must have accepted his loss and, being a swimmer, was now on board. Then suddenly he saw his baby son alive.

“As he clutched him and wept like a child my eyes filled with tears too. With this strange combination of joy and despair I felt my heart breaking in a way that it would never be the same again.

*          *          *

They started to see mountains and land as they approached the port of a little village called Blitar. Yaser knew, from previous experience, that despite their ordeal, they would be captured and put into detention, which is the same as what happens to those who are “turned back” by the Australian Navy.

So when they landed on the beach they tried to escape, but were soon caught by local police. Despite being detained they were properly attended to by doctors and immigration officers.

Once news spread of the tragedy, Yaser tells me it wasn’t long before the media arrived: journalists from Australia, Indonesia, even the United States and the BBC. They had seen fishing boats heading out as they arrived so they presumed a rescue had been mobilised. Yaser says he also remembers the arrival of “flash cars” transporting rescue boats, which were parked on the beach and photographed.

“On the first day we kept agonising and asking about any survivors but we could get no answer. Then we saw the brand new rescue boats were still on the beach and we realised they were just there for the cameras.

“So we threw all the food out the door and refused medical attention until the boat was found. They told us they were looking but we didn’t believe them. It only took us a few hours to get to the port so the wreckage was close and the fisherman must have given them coordinates.”

It was three days before Indonesian authorities found the wreck. By then only 13 were still alive. “Their skin was coming off from the sun,” Yaser says. “They had no water, no food, they just hung there. Some were asleep and woke up when each wave hit and others were so tired they just slid into the sea. Many people were hallucinating, thought they saw land and started swimming but never came back.”

We sat in silence and I wondered how I could tell Yaser that it later transpired that Canberra was notified about the Barokah’s sinking the evening it occurred. At the Senate Estimates it was claimed Indonesia initially declined Australia’s offer of help, but the official incident timeline, which Fairfax Media obtained under freedom of information, revealed that Basarnas – Indonesia’s search and rescue agency – had asked Australian Maritime Search and Rescue to coordinate the rescue response, but were refused. So for two days nothing was done until Basarnas asked again for help. This time, Australia agreed, and dispatched assistance. By then 201 people had died at sea.

*          *          *

Once the media and cameras had gone, Yaser and other survivors were transferred to a detention centre near Surabaya, where 16 Iranians were locked in one room, about 20 square metres.

“We slept on the floor jammed together like spoons,” Yaser says. “There were bars on the one window and the door. They wouldn’t even open them for the food, just squeezed it through. So we sat in grief and rage, some men crying, some beating themselves or fighting over trivial things. A friend, “Hamid*, had lost his entire immediate family. We had to take it in turns stopping him smashing his head against the wall. Slowly, slowly, bang, bang.

“The men started shouting at the officers, then began pleading through the bars: ‘Please, please open the door, we just need fresh air. We are not in a condition to cope with this.’ An officer came and put electric shock on the metal bars where everyone stood and they were scattered and thrown backwards into the cell.”

*          *          *

Indonesian immigration law allows asylum seekers, including “turn-backs”, to be detained for up to 10 years, but then what? Refoulment to the country they are escaping? Or release into Indonesian society as “illegal migrants” with no right to work, healthcare or education?

Australia’s obligations under the United Nations Convention for Refugees require us to process anyone requesting asylum, regardless of their lack of documentation or mode of arrival. Indonesia is not a signatory, yet our policy of “tow-backs” forces Indonesia, a country with 80 million people living in poverty, to take them for us.

By stopping the resettlement of any refugees from Indonesia who arrived in Australia after 1 July 2014, and by turning back boats, we have seriously increased the backlog of asylum seekers both in Indonesian detention, and on the streets. Indonesia has become the only place in the world where people are actually trying to get into detention centres – 2,600 sought entrance in 2014 – as the only way to survive.

Our “tow-backs” have also caused asylum seekers who were heading for Australia to divert to Europe, increasing the already burgeoning numbers there, and causing European resentment towards us for the extra burden.

If these “turn-backs” survive the return journey there is a limit to how long they can survive in the jungle on the Java coast or avoid being spotted by the villagers, who are frequently poor and hostile to foreigners. They often believe asylum seekers to be criminals for breaking Indonesian laws, and want them stopped from escaping through their communities.

*          *          *

Yaser had escaped Indonesian detention three times before, so after two months when they were let out of their cell, he and six others, with the help of a mattress and a rope made from sarongs, worked out a way over the wall. But they needed a diversion.

“The officers knew my friend Hamid had gone mad and would fight anyone, including them,” Yaser tells me with a grin. “So Hamid kept them busy by yelling and bashing the fence while four of us got over quickly, but three got stuck on the razor wire. Hamid elevated his performance and they eventually made it, but the villagers caught them. They beat them so badly that if the immigration officers hadn’t dragged the villagers off, they could have killed the three of them.”


*          *          *

Yaser returned to Jakarta and applied to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), but knew there was little hope of ever getting resettled. They are desperately under-resourced by the international community, and so overwhelmed by applicants that it can take many years to be processed. Then even if you qualify as a refugee, Australia might still reject you. Less than one per cent of 14.4 million refugees of concern to the UNHCR around the world ever get resettled. So nobody really expects to win that lottery.

“I couldn’t go back to Iran and I had no money, so I tried to get another boat,” Yaser shrugs as I stare at him in disbelief. I am reminded that his only other choice was eking out a miserable existence without work rights in a city, or returning to detention where the centres are under-resourced, drastically overcrowded, violent, and riddled with trauma and depressive illnesses.

“But the police stopped us in a small village on the way to the boat.” Yaser says looking almost relieved. “I knew we were gone. They sent us to a local police station but I was determined I was not going back to detention so while everyone was milling around in panic I managed to escape over a wall.

“I ran but every street I went down ended in jungle and the villagers were helping the police. I was so afraid, I ran into the undergrowth. I’d never been anywhere like that before. It was dark and almost impossible to find a way through so I finally crouched and tried to sleep.

“It was midnight when they came; a lot of them with flashlights and they started beating me. One villager said to take me to the police station but when we arrived I got bashed again.

“They told the people to go home and put me in a room on my own and left me. That night, covered in blood and bruises, I cried myself to sleep and gave up all hope.”

*          *          *

Punishment and posturing no longer has a role in the management of asylum seekers and refugees. Like climate change we need to be thinking globally, not just about our own backyard.

If we truly wish to stop deaths at sea and smuggling, we need to assist the UNHCR to process asylum seekers in source or transit countries and fly or ship our share to Australia safely. If they arrive by boat we fly them back to be processed, and if they do not qualify as refugees send them home when safe to do so.

If this was implemented successfully it would make people smugglers and Nauru and Manus Island redundant. But to do it we need to improve our diplomatic relations with our Asia Pacific neighbours and not force them to take the people we don’t want and to bear the financial and social burden of these “foreigners” when they, unlike us, have no obligation under any treaty to do so.

If only one per cent of applicants to the UNHCR get resettled, then 99 per cent are lingering in transit countries.

Australia’s refusal to help reduce this backlog by stopping any intake from Indonesia, and ignoring pleas by the Indonesian Government to cease turning back boats, can only foster a high-handed and hostile relationship with them. Our decision to reduce our foreign aid to Indonesia by 40 per cent this financial year is unlikely to improve the situation.

If we wish to be part of a regional solution it is essential for Australia to stop turning back boats, to reinstate our intake from Indonesia, and to increase our overall humanitarian intake to demonstrate our intention to burden share and collaborate.

What Australia needs from Indonesian and other governments in the region is for them to grant people seeking asylum a form of temporary legal status, with rights to work, health and education, while they wait to be processed.

Indonesia and other Asia Pacific countries know the 13,750 intake that Australia currently offers – the same as 2014–15 and 6,250 fewer places than in 2012–13 – will hardly make a dint in the numbers of asylum seekers and refugees stranded in their countries. So what they need from us is the financial support to maintain the basic human rights of those who continue to wait.

We have demonstrated we have sizeable funds currently funnelled into patrolling waters, turning back boats, catching, prosecuting and incarcerating people smugglers and punishing arrivals. This money could be made available to the UNHCR to process larger numbers more efficiently.

The 1.2 billion contract for managing Nauru and Manus Island, and the monies paid to host countries like PNG, Nauru, Cambodia and maybe the Philippines, could be used setting up “open-door centres” in transit countries where asylum seekers have access to work, health, educational rights, language and up-skilling, and even their own gardens for food, while they wait. Thus avoiding the crippling mental and physical impact detention has on traumatised people.

There is already an “open-door” processing facility in Indonesia run by the UNHCR. What’s required are additional funds to extend their resources to more people.

Let us depoliticise our language from fear and invasion to one that defines Australians as a people with concerns for fairness and human rights, so we can restore the pride in our country that many citizens have lost through our treatment of those seeking our help.

Exactly a year to the day since the Barokah sank in December 2011, Yaser became one of the one per cent who was found to be a refugee by the UNHCR in Jakarta. As it was before 1 July 2014, after which the Australian government sent anyone who arrived by boat to Manus Island or Nauru, he was allowed to resettle in Australia.
Since his arrival he studied and became fluent in English, put himself through TAFE for tertiary entrance, received an offer to University of Sydney, won a scholarship and is now there in his second year of a Commerce degree.