Cisarua, three hours south of Jakarta, where hundreds of people seek asylum in Australia

If you want to meet some future Australians, head to a small town in the hills about three hours drive south of Jakarta. It’s the place where thousands of Afghan asylum seekers gather before they board boats and cross the sea to Christmas Island. The town is called Cisarua and it’s Australia’s waiting room in Asia.

Our guides were two Afghan men with little in common other than they were both seeking a better life. We can’t give you their real names so we’ll call them Abdul and Hamad. They had become friends because their independent journeys had brought them together in Indonesia. We met them a couple of days earlier in Jakarta where they were waiting outside the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to have their refugee papers renewed.

They are ethnic Hazaras, like most Afghan asylum seekers, but Hamad is older and has lived in Iran for most of his life. He travelled to Indonesia via Turkey, where his family is now living. Abdul is young and single and fled Afghanistan, where he had been persecuted by Pashtuns. Hamad speaks only Farsi but Abdul speaks English well and he agreed to interpret for us.

We sat with them in a hot café as they told us about Cisarua. They estimated that about 2000 Hazaras were living there, spread out in several communities around the town. They drew us a map with dots and a straight line, representing the clusters of houses on either side of the main road.

“About 600 people live at Cidokam,” said Abdul, pointing at one of the dots. “There are 500 at Baitul Qosor, another 600 at Pasar Ahab.” He told us that when he arrived several months earlier there had been as many as 4000 Hazaras around the town. “A lot of people went to Australia,” he said. “One thousand of them got there and the other half were captured by the Indonesian police.”

They estimated only 10-15% of the Hazara asylum seekers in Cisarua were travelling in family groups and that there are very few women. All the rest are single men. They agreed to take us to meet some. So we followed Hamad and Abdul up a path, above the busy market, to a group of houses inside a small compound. Several men were standing on a balcony as we approached. They welcomed us inside, where we sat on the floor. They were all ages, some in their early 20s, others as old as 60. They all had the distinctive Hazara features: broad faces, Asian eyes. They told us they were eager to learn what they could about Australia, and especially keen to know one thing: why does it take Australia so long to process asylum seekers?

One asked: “If we have to stay here in Indonesia can’t they [the Australian government] help us to make it faster? They should make clear for us everything. We are confused and they should process the claims faster.” Another agreed: “One year I’ve been living here. It’s not a camp, it’s a jail.”

“We don’t want to put our lives in danger, but sometimes people say that we will have to be here for four or five years.”

Every asylum seeker who travels through Indonesia has to decide whether to take the official UNHCR path to resettlement in Australia or the unofficial route with a people smuggler. The men told us the official process takes far too long and it drives them into the hands of the people smugglers. “We don’t want to put our lives in danger,” said one of the men, “but sometimes people say that we will have to be here for four or five years. I’ve been in the camp for 15 months.”

We had heard the same sentiment earlier by a young man near the market: “That’s a very long time for me … I don’t have a lot of money and I have to send money to my family. There is no work here … I don’t want to go by ship but I would go [if I had the money]. I have to go.”

Of the nine men in the house, three had already paid a people smuggler to go by boat. Several others said they would too, if they could raise the money.

Most of the men had heard of Nauru. Some had heard about Manus Island. They knew the government’s policies had changed but they were hazy on the detail. When we told them about the government’s “no advantage” rule, which seeks to penalise people coming by boat to ensure they have no advantage over people who take the official UNHCR path, they listened and shook their heads.

Throughout Cisarua people told us about the effects of the seemingly endless wait for resettlement. Some said they were bored and directionless; others said they were frustrated by the rules that prevented them working. “It is difficult for us to afford our lives in Indonesia,” they said. Abdul told us that people develop psychological problems because life is so meaningless.

We met several people who had attempted the crossing. One of the men said he had tried to get to Australia but when his boat was in distress a Singaporean ship picked them up and handed them over to the Indonesian police. “Then we went to jail,” he said. “We were only seven miles away from international waters.” He told us how he escaped from the jail because the conditions were so bad. Others nodded and told us they also had friends who had escaped from prisons across Indonesia.

In the next house we met a man who had broken his ankle escaping from a second floor prison window. He told us he had been locked up for over two months in a closed room with 14 others. He knew people who had attempted to escape had been beaten by the guards but he felt compelled to try because his legal case was going nowhere. He had been on a boat with 120 others when they got into trouble about 36 hours out to sea. The boat returned to the port of Makassar, where the police took bribes from some and locked up others.

Asylum seekers talk to Crikey in a home in Cisarua (digitally altered to mask identities)

We heard several stories about police officers and prison guards demanding money, sometimes as much as $4000. Some told us they had no choice but to pay off the police because it was the only way to avoid a prison term of up to two years. Some guards apparently take money to allow people to escape, only to tip off the police afterwards to ensure they’re recaptured.

Although his ankle was broken six months ago, the man spends his days resting on a mattress on the floor. As he spoke we were surrounded by 14 Hazara men. Some peered through the door and others sat outside on the balcony and looked through the open window.  We were a welcome distraction in another day of waiting.

Then someone entered the room and passed us a mobile phone. He beckoned us to answer it. We adjusted the headphones, splitting the cable so we could share the ear pieces.  The voice on the phone said he was calling from a prison (which we won’t name for his protection) and he wanted us to come and see the conditions. “There are more than 200 people here,” he said. “This is a jail built for local criminals. They mix with us … The bathroom is no good. All the time it is wet … we have to sleep on the floor … People are sick.”

A few days later a doctor with the International Organisation for Migration confirmed his story. He described the conditions as appalling, with raw sewage flowing into the overcrowded rooms, in which people are forced to lie on the floor. On several occasions he had pleaded with the guards to improve sanitation.

“Australia is the prize. Learning the local language is not helpful, it is a diversion.”

Just outside Cisarua there is a compound run by the International Organisation for Migration for refugee families. The villas overlook a small valley across to terraced farms and distant mountains. It is a beautiful setting and the people in these homes are the lucky ones, relatively speaking. They have been officially recognised as refugees and receive a small amount of support from the IOM, which is in part funded by the Australian government.

But again there is frustration about the waiting. The children in one family said they had no way of knowing when they would be accepted by Australia. One boy had a flair for languages and had mastered English — but he had no interest in learning Bahasa Indonesia. Like all refugee children, he was allowed to attend the local school but he had given up on it because he claimed the standards were too low and the local students didn’t want to learn.

His damning assessment highlighted the lack of engagement the Hazaras have with the country that has given them protection. Indonesia is seen as merely a place of transit — Australia is the prize. Learning the local language is not helpful, it is a diversion.

On the main road we met Yousof, a 60-year-old Hazara farmer from Ghazni in Afghanistan. He had fled when Pashtun neighbours started persecuting him. He spent 13 years in Iran before embarking on the trip to Australia. When he arrived in the Sumatran city of Medan two years ago he was caught by the Indonesian police. He spent six months in a jail and finally ended up in Cisarua. Like many of the refugees fleeing Afghanistan, he is illiterate. He had to leave his wife, two daughters and four sons behind in Iran.

“I hope they will follow me to Australia,” he said. But Yousof’s case seems hopeless. He has diabetes and, his friends say, he is constantly confused. I asked him how long he expects to wait in Cisarua. “I don’t know, this belongs to Allah,” he said. “I am old and I am not working very good … I am very sad.”

Yousof shook our hands repeatedly, believing we could help him. He sat down in the gutter where he clasped his head and stared vacantly at the traffic.

In the IOM compound we met another family — a mother and her three children. They have already spent two years in a Malaysian refugee camp. Along the way one of her sons died. Her two daughters and her other son make a small living baking flat bread for the Hazara community. We watched them working on the verandah of their house. They have been accepted as refugees and expect they will be resettled. But like everyone else in Cisarua they have no idea when.

They just have to wait.

*Tomorrow in part two of Crikey‘s special report, the people smuggler model: how it works in Indonesia