Puncak, Indonesia – Noorullah said he can’t talk about what happened to his younger brothers and sisters on the night the Taliban came to kill him.
What he did say is that his mother was beaten and his father hasn’t been seen again. The last time Noorullah spoke to his father, he told him to escape through a first-floor window as armed men threatened to break down the front door of their home in Parwan province, Afghanistan.
“I ran for my life through the forest,” Noorullah said. “We live in a remote place, I was scared of wolves that live there. It was winter and cold, but I ran as far as I could.”
Noorullah’s work as an interpreter for the US military had made him a target for the Taliban. He is also a Hazara – an Afghan ethnic minority who are Shia Muslim; the Hazara have long been persecuted by members of the Pashtun majority, who are Sunni.
“In the morning I found myself by the road,” said Noorullah, who like many Afghans uses one name. “I tried to stop cars which were driven by members of my ethnicity, or at least not Pashtun. When I saw another Hazara, I waved in front of his truck and told him you have to stop.”
|Noorullah fled Afghanistan after the Taliban targeted him for working as an interpreter for the US military [Clea Broadhurst/Al Jazeera]|
After making it to Kabul, Noorullah stayed at a friend’s house and assessed his options. Conspicuous as a Hazara and fearful he could be identified by the Taliban’s network of spies, his thoughts immediately turned to how he might leave the country.
He said he didn’t want to depart by road to Pakistan in case he was discovered. Hundreds of thousands of Hazara have fled to Pakistan over the past decade, many of whom still face persecution there.
Instead he paid human traffickers to get him out of the country as quickly as possible.
“I felt that I could get killed at any time. Everything changes when it’s like that, your mind is not on the correct path,” he said.
“[I didn’t] know about the consequences [of where to go] or the visa … or what to do. People who are being persecuted don’t want to take the slower option. They want to go immediately.”
On the run
When he left Afghanistan on January 28 last year, Noorullah said he wasn’t primarily concerned with where he would resettle. His first aim was to put a large distance between him and the Taliban.
He said he knew it was unlikely he would remain at his first destination in New Delhi, India. But as he took off from Kabul airport, Noorullah said he never would have guessed that his search for asylum would bring him to Puncak – a Javan mountain town two hours from Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, and a temporary home to an unlikely community of refugees.
After spending two months in Delhi, Noorullah said he saw no chance of forging a new life in India and went back to the traffickers. He then flew on to Malaysia, where he was held in a locked room in Kuala Lumpur for five days, before he crossed into Indonesia, illegally, by boat.
Noorullah paid $9,000 for his transit between Afghanistan and Indonesia.
After flying on from Medan on the island of Sumatra to Jakarta, Noorullah said he gradually met more Afghans in the same situation.
They told us there was a place that was beautiful, with minimum cost and very quiet .... This is the best place for us in Indonesia.
“They told us there was a place that was beautiful, with minimum cost and very quiet. [They said there was] no need to live in Jakarta where there’s too much traffic and it’s crowded and expensive. So now we can live in [Puncak], a place like our previous hometown in Afghanistan … This is the best place for us in Indonesia,” he said.
Noorullah estimated about 4,000 Afghans live in the town at the foot of Mount Gede – an active volcano that last erupted in 1957. The asylum-seeker community is large enough to easily man an eight-team Afghan football league, of which Noorullah is a part.
All seven of his friends who gathered around him as he recounted his story took the same route; all paid between $8,000-$12,500 to get here, all are Hazara. Noorullah said at least 95 percent of the Afghan population in Puncak are Hazara.
Heading to Puncak
On the surface, Indonesia seems like a strange choice of destination; it is not a signatory to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention and has no process by which to give legal status to asylum seekers or refugees.
The government effectively outsources the processing of asylum seekers to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jakarta.
UNHCR is tasked with assisting asylum seekers and refugees, either to return safely to their homeland, or to find other solutions, including resettlement to a third country.
But there are UNHCR offices across Asia. So why are Afghan asylum seekers coming here?
“[Hazara Afghans come to Indonesia] because the UNHCR here is better. You get to go to Australia a lot faster here. You get processed a lot faster. But in Thailand or other countries the UNHCR isn’t that powerful or that good,” Abdullah, a 22-year-old Hazara Afghan, said.
“A friend of mine was resettled about two months ago. He was here for about a year and a half, now he’s in Melbourne or Brisbane. We stand a better chance of resettlement.”
The vulnerability of the Hazara Afghanistan – for whom there is almost no hope of returning to their homeland – has made them a priority for UNHCR.
Australia also accepts a larger percentage of refugees from UNHCR in Indonesia to validate its tough stance on asylum seekers arriving by boat.
|Hazara Afghans share a meal [Al Jazeera]|
While the Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s “Operation Sovereign Borders” continues to make headlines as asylum seekers wash up on Indonesia’s south coast after being turned around by the Australian navy, there must be some sort of incentive for them to wait to be processed through legitimate channels.
“[It comes from] the recommendation of the Australian expert panel on asylum seekers in order to tackle and deter the boats from Indonesia. They are trying to push Indonesia into detaining asylum seekers who have not been granted refugee status and only accepting refugees who have,” said Febionesta, a representative for the Indonesian Civil Society Network for Refugee Protection, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.
“To fulfil its side of [the bargain] Australia must receive more [documented] refugees from Indonesia, so that the refugees don’t have to wait longer.”
In effect the Hazara asylum-seeker community in Puncak is the consequence of a small, esoteric window of hope in the UNHCR resettlement system.
And refugee rights campaigners are keen to stress that the window is small. They point out that the numbers being granted resettlement remain discouragingly low.
Last year UNHCR in Jakarta resettled about 800 refugees to Australia out of a combined total of 10,466 registered refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia.
The numbers accommodated between Indonesia and Australia are a tiny fraction of the 1.6 million Afghan refugees currently hosted in Pakistan.
In 2012, 88,600 registered refugees were resettled to a third country out of a global refugee population of 10.5 million – less than one percent.
Activists also point out that because of the criteria laid out by countries accepting refugees, certain ethnicities are discriminated against by the system.
Currently Hazara Afghans experience greater chances of resettlement. In Indonesia they may face a wait of between one and two years before being relocated, possibly to Australia or New Zealand.
They are trying to push Indonesia into detaining asylum seekers who have not been granted refugee status and only accepting refugees who have.
But for Rohingya Muslims persecuted in Myanmar, the chances of resettlement are almost zero.
With no hope of resettlement, asylum seekers may become stranded in Indonesia, with no right to work, education or healthcare.
As years go by the wait for resettlement can become too much to bear, leading some to return to the people traffickers, and to hedge their bets on a rickety boat-ride to Australia.
Even for Noorullah – who has now been relocated to Medan by the International Organisation for Migration and hopes to reach a third country later this year – it is a daily challenge to remain optimistic about his situation; estranged from his family, surviving on offerings from refugee aid agencies.
“I can’t be mentally disorganised. It makes you more and more unhealthy. So because of this we [hold our own] English classes, we have sport, football, we have to do some activities,” he said.
“For a few minutes in the day you have to think about your life, your future, about what you’re going to do. But for the rest of the day you must try to enjoy.”
Noorullah said he does not blame the US military for his predicament, adding he was employed through a private contractor to report on development projects carried out under USAID funding. His employer told him they too were in danger and there was nothing they could do. He did not ask the US army for help.
“This happened because of the work I was doing,” he said. “I wish I hadn’t done it, but this is the challenge. To live you have to find another way.”
UNHCR failed to respond to repeated requests for comment by the time of publication. Indonesia’s Department for Immigration also failed to respond.