Meet Ashraf

Meet Ashraf: the Asylum Seeker from Iran

Meet Ashraf. That’s not his real name. And he’s not your typical expat, being an Iranian asylum seeker who calls Jakarta home while hoping to be granted refugee status elsewhere.

How did you arrive in Indonesia?
I flew from Iran via another country, travelling on a fake passport. I had just turned 35.

Why did you leave Iran?
I was a professional earning a good salary. I spoke about a crime I had witnessed. I was told I would be jailed. I had already seen people killed for not supporting the mullahs. The mullahs are the Shia clerics who rule the country.

Iran is supposed to be an oil-rich country, but infrastructure and the economy are bad. The environment is being destroyed and there’s a lot of waste and corruption. You can be jailed or executed if you promote political change.

Isn’t Iran’s new president a moderate?
There have been about 500 executions since Hassan Rouhani became president last August. Many of those executed are activists. The newspapers will say they were drug addicts or ordinary criminals. People take their children to watch public executions. Police rob people in the streets. Progressive teachers have been removed from schools and universities for questioning the mullahs. One university lecturer used to demand sex from his female students to pass them. After he was caught in the act, he received a promotion. This is the Iranian government.

Youth suicide is high. Even the president’s son committed suicide. Drug use and HIV are increasing. Many local women are turning to prostitution – something you never saw 15 years ago. Often it’s a husband prostituting his wife to make money.

Where would you like to live?
Canada or New Zealand. Or anywhere safer than Iran.

What about Australia?
Australia now has a bad reputation as a racist country, which no longer accepts valid refugees, so I don’t want to go there. We hear a lot of stories recently about Australia mistreating asylum seekers. There have been some asylum seekers whose claims were not valid or they misbehaved, so Australia is now tough on everyone.

Talk us through the process of seeking refugee status.
You arrive in Jakarta and register with the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR. You get a permit to stay in Indonesia for three or four months. When that expires, you extend it. All of this time, you are waiting for an interview with the UNHCR to present your case for asylum. Eventually, you will be interviewed. Then you may have to wait many more months before they tell you the result.

It can take two years of waiting. Every month you’re spending about $400 on rent and food – or double that if you have a wife and children. In two years you could spend $15,000 here, only to be told that your application has been denied. If you are accepted, resettlement can still take many years.

So if you have no income and limited savings, of course you will sooner pay $3,000 to a people smuggler to get a boat going to Christmas Island or Darwin. Even if you then have to spend a couple of years in a detention centre, you’ve got food and accommodation, and you can learn English. Two years in an Australian detention centre is better than two years of uncertainty in Indonesia.

How do you get asylum?
You must prove it is unsafe for you to go home. You cannot just say: “My parents were killed.” They will say: “That was your parents’ problem; you have no problem, so go back.”

Some people lie about their sexuality to get accepted. They say they are gay or lesbian, so they fear being beaten or jailed. That works. And you can say you have converted from Islam to Christianity. That works too. But be careful if you say you are an atheist! Don’t insult the Prophet. The Indonesian UNHCR officers don’t like that, even though they should be neutral.

You’re not interviewed by Westerners?
Previously there were some Westerners. Now the interviewers are Indonesians, using Afghanis as interpreters. The Indonesian UNHCR officers don’t have enough information about Iranian politics and security. There’s a lot of discrimination against Iranians. The UNHCR officers favour Afghanis. Even if an Afghani grew up in Iran, he just has to say “the Taliban took my land and threatened to kill me,” and he gets his approval. The UNHCR officers say Iran is a safe country. Well if it’s safe, then why not send some Afghanis there? Iran has a UNHCR office. Of course it’s not safe. Iranian police beat up Afghanis without provocation.

Can you work in Indonesia?
Not legally. Some Iranians living around Bogor have started small businesses in their houses, making bread and cheese to sell to other asylum seekers. They’re not making much money. Many asylum seekers get desperate. They get on these unsafe boats and drown. We all know the police are cooperating with people smugglers. Maybe this is why things take so long.

If you want to stop people smuggling, then make the process faster. Tell applicants yes or no within a few months; don’t leave them waiting for over a year.

Have you been approached by people smugglers?
All the time! In Bogor, they recognise you and offer you trips to Australia for as low as $1,000. Some just take money and cheat you. Some offer a trip on a big boat all the way to New Zealand for $6,000 to $10,000 per person. There’s one people smuggler who offers plane trips to New Zealand via Bali and Sydney for $15,000 per person. This includes the ticket, a fake passport and paying off Indonesian Immigration so you can exit the country without problems.

If Indonesian Immigration and Police wanted to stop the people smugglers, they could arrest them all in a week. We all know who they are! The Sri-Lankan people smugglers are good. They’re honest. The Indonesian people smugglers can be dangerous. There’s one guy who took money and put people in tiny boats that were unsafe. When the people complained, they got into trouble.

How do you kill time in Jakarta?
I read. I have the internet for keeping up to date with politics. And I watch DVDs.

Do you like Indonesia?
Yes, you have freedom in Indonesia. Ladies do not have to cover up in public. Police here are not as bad as Iranian police. In Bogor, police can ask to see your ID and then threaten to take you to jail unless you pay them about Rp.300,000. So I don’t go out much. I know one Iranian family living in Bogor; their house was robbed one day. When they reported the robbery to police, they were locked up and had to pay $1,000 to be released. That’s not as bad as being tortured or executed.

Most Arabs coming to Indonesia are sex tourists; going to the nightclubs or buying a holiday wife. Iranians are not Arabs. Only our ruling mullahs are Arabs. We are Persians, who were conquered by Arabs and forced to become Muslims. Then the English supported the mullahs and the Ayatollah Khomeini when he overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979, because BP was going to lose its oil contracts. After that, Khomeini took us to war with Iraq so that he could stay in power after breaking promises. It has been a mess ever since.

Is there a solution to the problems in Iran?
I don’t know. The people will have to take to the streets, like in Egypt. But there will be a lot of bloodshed, like in Syria, unless everyone protests. But the people are so afraid.

What options do you have if denied refugee status?
Single men can stay here and marry Indonesian women. Others go back to danger or death. When Rouhani became president, he announced that all Iranians living abroad could return home without any problems. One university lecturer who returned was given a very quick trial and sentenced to 10 years in jail. I have no plan to return.

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Kenneth Yeung is a Jakarta-based editor.