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Living in Limbo: The Asylum Problem

19 minute read
Krista Mahr / Tanjung Pinang

In 2008, on a parched July day in central Afghanistan, 26-year-old Sayed Ali Jan was at work, hauling fuel along a highway in Wardak province for a logistics company supplying foreign troops. His young wife, Sayeeda, was at home with his parents in Kabul. They were expecting their first baby before the end of the year.

(See pictures of the urbanization of the world’s refugees.)

Then, suddenly, the plans that any young couple makes were over before they had really begun. A gunman on the road signaled for Sayed to stop: Taliban. Sayed hit the brakes and jumped down from the cab. It had been seven years since the U.S. led international forces into Afghanistan, and at that moment he was on the wrong side of an escalating war. The Taliban destroyed his truck in a fireball and took him captive. Two months later, Sayed escaped and walked for two harrowing days to get home, only to find that his wife had miscarried and his father had died of a heart attack. The Taliban were pursuing him, so he and his wife decided to flee the country.

(Watch TIME’s video “The Challenge on the Ground in Afghanistan.”)

They sold the family home to raise $14,000 — the price tag to be smuggled on an increasingly well-traveled route through Pakistan to Malaysia. There, they were kept in a hotel room for over a month where Sayeeda, pregnant again, delivered her daughter Kaienat with the help of a woman from the smuggling ring. The family boarded a small boat to Indonesia and eventually were left on the street in Jakarta, stripped of their passports, watches and phone. After making their way to the U.N., a local branch of Church World Service gave them about $125 to take Kaienat to the doctor and rent a one-room apartment in an area outside Jakarta already so full of asylum seekers that one aid worker calls it “the waiting place.” But after two months, the U.N. office had yet to schedule their interview to apply for asylum, and the cash was running out. “If we knew, we would have stayed and died in Afghanistan,” said Sayeeda in January. “Dead is better than this life.”

There are millions of people living that life today. They are scattered in sprawling tent cities, cramped apartments or jail cells, each one caught in a system struggling to keep pace with the complex world that put them there. According to the U.N., there were over 15 million recognized refugees around the world at the beginning of 2009, and another 826,000 asylum seekers. More than half of the world’s refugees are in Asia and another 22% are in Africa; both regions where many governments are ill-equipped, legally and economically, to handle the volumes of people requesting protection in their borders. The 59-year-old Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was designed to help Europeans dispersed during World War II return home in an orderly fashion. Now it’s charged with aiding the millions who sweep the earth as they flee bloodshed, repression or poverty. “It was a simpler world out there,” says Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch’s refugee-policy program, referring to the years between the end of World War II and the end of the Cold War. “It wasn’t looking at messy, mixed reasons for [people] leaving.”

(Read “Dangers Await Africans Seeking Asylum in Israel.”)

The world’s humanitarian resolve, so evident after 1945, is weakening as governments throw up higher walls to both keep out economic migrants and ramp up security. In some countries with high influxes of refugees and those seeking asylum — such as Italy, Indonesia and Malaysia — nearly 90% of the population favors more stringent restrictions on immigration, according to a 2007 Pew Research Center poll. Many countries once willing to receive refugees — defined in the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as those running from persecution in their own nation because of race, religion, nationality or social or political affiliation — are no longer prepared or able to do so. Indeed, the very definition of refugee is no longer adequate for the vast ranks of those who are fleeing wretched or violent states but are driven, rather, by a desire to better themselves economically. Sheer pressure of numbers means that the sanctity of non-refoulement — the principle, enshrined in the convention, that a nation cannot forcibly send a person back to a homeland where they could face danger — is diminishing. More and more, genuine asylum seekers, along with those looking for work, are being pushed back to places they lost everything to leave, or are stuck in transit countries where legal protection for them is minimal.

Once they’re away from their home country, refugees can expect to wait. For most, finding a new home in a third country is a distant dream. No state is obligated to offer permanent homes to refugees in transit countries; in 2008, the UNHCR helped 88,000 people resettle out of the 10.5 million recognized refugees that it works with (and that doesn’t count the many more whose applications for that legal status are pending). Though the 1951 Refugee Convention defines who deserves protection as a refugee and what their basic rights in other nations should be, it does not obligate states to take refugees in as their own citizens. Today, there are 30 spots across the globe where more than 25,000 people of the same nationality have been waiting for at least five years, according to the U.N. For many, it’s been much longer: some of the 66,000 Eritreans living in camps in Sudan have been there since the 1960s, and in Algeria, refugees from the western Sahara have been stateless for over 30 years. In 1993, the average waiting time in “protracted situations,” as the U.N. refers to them, was about nine years. By 2003, it was 15. As conflicts in the Middle East and parts of Africa deteriorate, says António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, “The time in asylum in many of these situations, unfortunately, becomes endless.”

Read “Asylum Seekers Stuck in Indonesia-Australia Standoff.”

Watch TIME’s video “Yemen a Dead End for Somali Refugees.”

Bound for a Land Down Under
It takes roughly seven days to sail from the southern shore of the Indonesian island of Java to Ashmore Reef, a low-slung speck of Australian territory surrounded by turquoise waters. Such relatively short distances to a country long seen as a safe haven are what drew thousands of asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iraq to Indonesia last year. But it wasn’t Jakarta they were bound for; it was Sydney.

Of those who made it to Australian territory, either by air or by boat, around 2,000 were granted asylum. But most refugees never see the southern continent’s coast. Instead, they end up in places like the immigration detention center at Tanjung Pinang, a town on Bintan island, just over two hours by air from Jakarta. The largest of 15 such centers spread throughout the Indonesian archipelago, it can hold up to 600 detainees at a time. In January there were 96; by late June the number had shot up to over 420. Among them is 34-year-old Sayed Nadir Besharat, an Afghan who describes his work as a radio operator and interpreter for U.S. special forces in Kandahar and Kabul, and says he fled after the Taliban killed a close friend and threatened him. As with many inmates, before Besharat could reach Australia, where he had heard more refugees were being accepted, his boat was stopped in Indonesian waters. “We are not criminals,” he says, sitting in a cell amid a cluster of Afghans. “We came here to get to another place, but we are in cages.”

(Read “Australia: Boat Arrivals of Asylum Seekers Rising.”)

The facility has some comforts — there are regular doctor visits, TVs, a volleyball net and three filling if monotonous meals a day. (“Rice, rice, rice, rice, rice,” laments Besharat.) It’s more than many Indonesians get. But a poor country like Indonesia can ill afford to spend much on refugees. The meals and amenities — along with the cheerful coat of yellow paint and potted plants at the reception — are provided by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), paid for with a healthy dose of Australian government aid.

Today, 147 countries have agreed to international standards for processing people who claim asylum at their borders, but Indonesia is not among them. It does not have laws distinguishing asylum seekers from illegal immigrants. In fact, while most of Europe, Africa and Latin America has signed the 1951 treaty, only a handful of Asian nations recognize global refugee rights, even though millions under the UNHCR’s mandate are in the region. This year in Bangladesh, aid groups reported violent police crackdowns and widespread hunger in makeshift camps housing tens of thousands of Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority facing persecution in Burma, who have crossed into Bangladesh seeking protection. In 2009, human rights groups accused the Thai military of setting hundreds of Rohingya refugees adrift at sea without adequate supplies. Thailand — which like Indonesia and Bangladesh has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention but generously hosted many refugees after the Vietnam War — came under scrutiny again in December when the government forcibly repatriated 4,000 Hmong asylum seekers to Laos. The same month, Cambodia bowed to economic pressure from its largest benefactor and sent 20 Uighur asylum seekers back to China after they had fled race riots — a move that sparked international outcry and has since prompted the U.S. to cut off some aid to Phnom Penh. In Asia, “refugees are seen as political pawns,” says Frelick of Human Rights Watch. “The idea that you would provide asylum to a person who is considered an enemy of [another] state is looked upon as an unfriendly act.”

(Watch TIME’s video “Creating New Land for Climate Refugees in Bangladesh.”)

As the numbers trying to transit through Indonesia to Australia have risen, so have tensions between neighboring states over who should be responsible for them. “Indonesia is not the backyard of Australia,” says Sujatmiko, director for diplomatic security service for Indonesia’s Department of Foreign Affairs. “We are not the garbage bin.” In January, every immigration detention center in Indonesia was full except Tanjung Pinang, and, he adds, “The rest are not in good condition.”

For Canberra, the influx of illegal boat arrivals has become political toxin. Though Australia has a generous refugee resettlement program, the government temporarily suspended asylum applications from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan in April as illegal boat arrivals have been on the rise. This year, the Australian navy had intercepted more than 70 illegal boats in its waters by late June. They were carrying over 3,200 asylum seekers hoping to be processed at the offshore immigration center on Christmas Island, another remote piece of Australian territory. As Christmas Island has grown crowded, tents have been set up to accommodate the overflow and the government has been seeking alternate spots on the mainland to house new arrivals, including a remote former mining camp, drawing criticism from both pro- and anti-immigration groups. But to Andrew Bartlett, a former Australian Senator and a campaigner for asylum seekers, inadequate facilities are far less of a problem than the time it takes to process refugee claims. “You could keep them in a luxury resort,” he says, “but if they don’t know what’s going on … that’s what drives them mad eventually.”

See pictures of refugees fleeing fighting in the Swat Valley.

A Change of Heart
Kaienat, the daughter of Sayed and Sayeeda, may have come into this world as a refugee. Haweeya, a 20-year-old woman from Mogadishu, Somalia, left the world as one. On a late-January morning in central Jakarta, a group of Somali men stood around her freshly dug grave in Karet Bivak cemetery, molding clumps of red earth to make a pillow for her head. A few women hung back and watched them lift her body, swathed in white, off a metal gurney. Three years ago, Haweeya, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons, fled Somalia’s chronic internecine warfare and ended up in Indonesia, where she was granted refugee status by the small Jakarta office of the UNHCR. A childhood bout of polio had left her frail and on crutches. Her condition worsened in early January, and she was admitted to hospital. Before her doctors could figure out what was wrong, Haweeya died. The waiting place became, for her, the final resting place.

There was a time when more young Somalis like Haweeya might have sought refuge in Europe, much closer to home. But Europe is not the welcoming haven it was. Until 2008, business along the Libyan coast smuggling migrants across the Mediterranean was booming: boats were leaving each week for the small Italian island of Lampedusa. Thousands are believed to have drowned along the way, but many more made it — about 31,000 that year. Some 75% claimed asylum on Italy’s shores, and over 10,000 men and women from violence-wracked countries like Somalia, Eritrea and Nigeria were eventually granted asylum by Italian immigration authorities.

(Read “Sending Europe’s Asylum Seekers Home.”)

That all stopped in May 2009, after Italy’s navy escorted a boat of Africans from the high seas back to the Libyan capital, Tripoli. It wasn’t the first time Italy openly sent migrants back to North Africa — they had deported people by plane before — but it was a loud message that an accord had been struck. Sweetened by an official apology from the Italians for nearly three decades of colonial rule, and a $5 billion investment pledge, Libyan authorities became far more cooperative about stemming the migrant tide. Some 2,000 Africans now languish in Libya’s detention centers. Applications for asylum in Italy dropped 42% last year, a political victory in a nation that — like Spain, Greece and Turkey — sees itself as under human siege from increasing numbers of those seeking work and safety. But, warns Christopher Hein, director of the Italian Refugee Council in Rome, “The problem is not solved only because you have erected a wall.”

Life for would-be migrants on the other side of that wall is bleak. In a half-built shell of a house in Tripoli, two young Nigerian men share a mattress on the floor, their few possessions in plastic bags in a corner. Ibrahim Ahmed Mohammed, a lanky 27-year-old, sold his land in Nigeria in 2008 and paid transporters $1,500 to get him all the way to Europe. By the time he made it to Tripoli, the boats had stopped. “I cannot go forward and I cannot go backward,” says Mohammed. Shortly after he left for Europe his father was killed in an outbreak of Christian-Muslim violence in Nigeria’s turbulent Jos state. Now he is still trying to scrape cash together for the trip back home. “It is better if I go back to my country, even if I die of poverty,” he says.

(Watch TIME’s video “In Calais, a Dead End for Refugees Bound for Britain.”)

Mohammed’s situation is being mirrored at borders across the globe. With more agreements like the one between Italy and Libya likely to be struck, asylum claims to Europe are dropping — down to 287,000 in 2009 from 445,000 a decade earlier. Since Italy started taking a tougher stance last year, the number of Eritreans taking an alternate route to Europe via Turkey to Greece, where asylum infrastructure is less developed, has doubled. “When you close the door, someone tends to open a window. If you close the window, someone will dig a tunnel,” says Guterres of the UNHCR. “Smugglers are well informed.”

In the meantime, European states that have historically offered homes to a high number of refugees are wearying of their role. Of the 5,835 refugees resettled in the E.U. in 2008, nearly 40% — astonishingly — went to Sweden alone. (Finland was next with 749.) In 2007, Stockholm made room for half the Iraqi refugees who went to Europe. But even Sweden’s generosity has its limit. Last November, the southern city of Malmo, which has resettled many refugees in recent years, tried to rent a hostel in the nearby seaside town of Vellinge for some 30 unaccompanied minors who had been given residence in Sweden as refugees. The plan eventually passed, but not before having to overcome strident opposition from the well-to-do folks of Vellinge. Vellinge councilman Nils-Ola Ruth says the town meeting to discuss the proposal was a “sad” affair. “They were worried about these young men coming from traumatized backgrounds and war-torn countries and being placed in the village,” says Ruth. “They have daughters, you know.”

That reflects a shifting national mood. A Swedish court has ruled that the domestic situation in Iraq is no longer sufficiently dangerous to necessitate asylum. Deportations to E.U. states where asylum seekers first registered have been ramped up, regardless of the conditions they might face there. Stockholm faced criticism at home and abroad for deporting a group of children to Malta, where they had once refused to return asylum seekers for fear that detention centers were below European standards. These days, says Migration Minister Tobias Billstrom, Sweden “will not allow European countries with poorer standards to continue to escape their responsibilities.”

See pictures of life returning to Iraq’s streets.

Questions Without Answers
So what can be done? Today’s refugee crisis is a global one, and it demands responses from all nations — not just those who are bearing its brunt. Today, “there is freedom of goods and services, but there’s not an acceptance of the movement of people,” says Denis Nihill, the chief of mission of IOM in Indonesia. “It’s not traditionally seen as being a multilateral issue.” Figuring out how to manage borders without excluding genuine asylum seekers isn’t easy. Says Kitty McKinsey, a UNHCR public-information officer in Bangkok: “The challenge for everybody — coast guards, human-rights activists, border patrol, everybody — is to figure out who’s who.”

That challenge is particularly acute, given that the profile of those claiming asylum status is changing. In one widely publicized case, the U.S. recently granted asylum to a family who said they could not freely homeschool their children in Germany. Seeking shelter from persecution in countries where homosexuality is illegal or not tolerated is also becoming a more common asylum claim. And what about Brandon Huntley, the 31-year-old white South African who was granted asylum in Canada last year after citing intolerably high crime and what he claimed was growing persecution of a once privileged minority?

(See pictures of the urbanization of the world’s refugees.)

The factors that make the global asylum system so unpredictable today also mean that cookie-cutter fixes won’t work. “We couldn’t write a global report on how to improve treatment of refugees worldwide,” says Frelick of Human Rights Watch. “That’s taking too big a bite. We take nibbles. And we make some improvements.”

There are bright spots. In Asia, South Korea granted citizenship to a recognized refugee for the first time this year, and the UNHCR has recently lauded Malaysia, another major crossroads for asylum seekers in Asia. Spain announced it would start resettling refugees for the first time in February; last year, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Luxembourg did the same. In 2008, the E.U. issued a joint pledge to try to resettle up to 10,000 Iraqi refugees, the first time that all 27 member states — less than half of which have annual resettlement programs — made a collective commitment to refugees. Though it’s not binding, “it’s still a very positive thing,” says Nathalie Stiennon of the International Rescue Committee in Brussels.

(See pictures of the French cracking down on migrants.)

The U.S. has become a benchmark for its generous refugee program. Applications are typically processed within a year (fast by world standards) and more refugees have been resettled in the U.S. than in all other countries combined. In 2008, 22,930 people were granted asylum and another 60,100 refugees, mostly from Burma, Iraq and Bhutan, were resettled from their first country of asylum into the U.S. (The U.S. is helping resettle up to 60,000 ethnic Nepalese refugees from Bhutan who say they were forced out of the small Himalayan nation in the early 1990s.) The Obama Administration has announced it may end its policy of funneling asylum seekers into the nation’s 300-plus immigrant detention centers while their cases inch through the legal system. That would be “a fundamental shift — if it happens,” says Sarnata Reynolds, policy and advocacy director for refugee and migrants’ rights at Amnesty International USA.

Neither Here Nor There
For a lucky few, good news arrives. In late June, Sayed Ali Jan and his wife got a phone call from the UNHCR office in Jakarta: their refugee status had been granted. “I am shocked,” said Sayeeda, beaming. “We are ready to go.” When the young family will be able to move on is a question still unanswered; maybe before Kaienat’s second birthday, maybe after her fifth. As one wait ends, another begins.

For millions of refugees and asylum seekers, surviving the crushing isolation of that wait is a daily feat. Before her roommate Haweeya was buried, 19-year-old Haboou Abdilahi sat outside the hospital morgue in a long black dress and headscarf. Abdilahi, who also has UNHCR refugee status, held her friend’s U.N. refugee card and paperwork in her lap, trying at the same time to pay respects while not looking at Haweeya’s corpse on a metal table six feet away, thin chin and shoulders jutting up from under the cotton shroud. When asked where in Jakarta she lived, Abdilahi replied, “Me and Haweeya live together.” A moment of confusion passed over her face and she shook her head. And then, “I live alone.”

with reporting by Behrang Kianzad / Vellinge And Vivienne Walt / Tripoli

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