When I sat down to write this story in July, the air was charged with political rhetoric around “stopping the boats”. Many were outraged when the Rudd government announced its policy to handball asylum seekers to PNG and social media forums were noisy with chatter about the inhumane treatment of those fleeing the unimaginable horrors of war and persecution.
Barat Ali Batoor is one of those refugees and he risked his life when he climbed onboard a rickety wooden boat in Indonesia late last year bound for Australia. Batoor’s boat sank and the young documentary photographer from Afghanistan captured the terror as he and his fellow passengers – comprising more than 90 Hazara asylum seekers – watched the water rise around them. The boat ran ashore in Western Java and Batoor scrambled to safety. His story was aired on SBS’s Dateline program and audiences were given a first-hand account of the risks these desperate people take in their bid for a brighter future.
Batoor is one of the lucky few. He survived the ordeal at sea, managed to stay out of the clutches of the Indonesian prison system and was finally granted asylum in Australia. He arrived in Melbourne in May this year, ready to start his new life, but ever mindful of those he had to leave behind.
When I first spoke to Barat Ali Batoor in February, he was in Indonesia, living with other Hazara refugees, all awaiting their fate while bureaucrats shuffled paperwork. To keep busy Batoor began to document the lives of those around him, many of whom were young men who had left their homes with the burden of knowing they could never return.
His photo essay, titled Unseen Road To Asylum, is a harrowing tale. Batoor hopes that by putting a human face to the asylum issue, the wider community will have a greater understanding of the conditions in which these people are living; not just physical but psychological. He knows how fortunate he is and often thinks of those who are still living in limbo.
“My aim with this photo essay was to document the journey that I am taking, this risky route and to show the real difficulties refugees are facing and have faced for the last decade. Escaping from their country, hoping to find a safe place after risking their lives.”
He pauses for a moment before continuing and his voice drops. “I have known many who have drowned. In some cases almost whole families have died, and still people are willing to take this boat journey. I wanted to show the people and what they are going through, why they are fleeing and why they don’t hesitate to take this risk when there’s such a high chance of dying.”
Batoor’s journey took him from Afghanistan to Pakistan and onto Thailand.
“After Thailand I started my illegal journey entering Malaysia and there I was locked up in a house by a smuggler for three nights. Then we were taken to a speedboat, 16 people, and we travelled in the dark for four hours to get into Indonesia. From there it was a 20-hour road journey. We travelled in the back of cars sitting on the floor; on the metal – there were no seats. We were not allowed to look outside, and told to keep our head down to our feet so people outside couldn’t see us…” He trails off, but I don’t need to hear any more details. It is clear that this is a treacherous route and that these desperate people are at the mercy of profiteers that are enabled by onerous government processes that leave people in limbo.