Some migrants are arrested by police officers and border guards along the way and deported back to Pakistan; others are extorted or abandoned by the traffickers, or robbed on the roadside. In many cases, they end up paying thousands of dollars more — in bribes to crooked border officers or supplemental fees to smugglers — so they can keep pressing toward Australia.
The last leg is the most treacherous. In Indonesia, migrants buy tickets aboard small, overcrowded boats bound for Christmas Island, a small Australian territory about 240 miles off the Indonesian coast, where they apply for political asylum. There, they join other boat people — Sri Lankans, Iranians, Afghans, Iraqis.
Safe arrival is by no means guaranteed. Between late 2001 and last June, 964 asylum seekers and boat crew members from various countries are known to have lost their lives on this passage, said Sandi Logan, a spokesman for the Australian government’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship.
Habibullah, a 22-year-old student from Quetta, was nearly one of them. Last October, he joined 34 Hazara men on a boat bound for Christmas Island. Within 24 hours, the boat had sunk in a storm. Mr. Habibullah, who has only one name, says he was the sole survivor, picked up by an Indonesian fishing boat after three days clinging to floating debris.
In a harrowing written account of those events sent by e-mail, and in a phone interview from Indonesia, Mr. Habibullah described a traumatic ordeal.
He spoke of long hours in the water, whipped by waves and fearing sharks, desperately calling out to distant passing ships. But most anguishing, he said, was the sight of fellow passengers slipping under the waves, some calling out to their wives or parents.
Mr. Habibullah, suffering extreme thirst and sharp kidney pain, sustained himself by thinking of his home in Quetta. “I remembered my past, surrounded by my parents,” he wrote. “And I realized they were with me.”
It is impossible to confirm Mr. Habibullah’s account independently. But Hazara community leaders in Quetta confirmed that several men accompanying Mr. Habibullah had died, and some of their photographs have been published on blogs.
Mr. Habibullah sounded despondent. Conditions at the government detention center in Indonesia were grim, he said, and he was struggling to gain an asylum hearing from the United Nations refugee agency. Nine months after leaving home, and having spent $15,000 on bribes, transportation and smuggler’s fees, he had not reached Australia.
Still, he understood why other Hazaras wanted to make the journey. “It’s worth it,” he said.
The Australian government has tried to deter the boat people. Last year, it began transferring asylum seekers to detention centers on two remote Pacific islands while their cases are heard. Human rights groups and United Nations officials have condemned conditions at the camps, and Australian news media have reported several suicide attempts there in recent months.Responding to the criticism, Australian officials say they have increased their humanitarian refugee quota to 20,000 this year, a 40 percent increase. At the same time, in countries like Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, the Australian government has started an advertising campaign seeking to persuade potential refugees to stay at home.
Yet still they keep coming. In the first weeks of April, according to official figures, the Australian Navy intercepted 10 boats carrying 760 people, most bound for Christmas Island. The majority of cases from Afghanistan and Pakistan were ethnic Hazaras, whose numbers have grown to about 25,000 people in Australia, officials say.
Before leaving Karachi, Hussain and Master took a stroll along the beach, dipping their toes in the Arabian Sea and meandering among the young families on the sand.
Hussain stressed that if not for the extremist threat, he would not be leaving Pakistan. Ten months earlier he had married his sweetheart, a local teacher, whom he had left behind. His family made a good living from its clothes business. And patriotism ran in the family — his grandfather had served in Pakistan’s army.
“This could be the last time I see Pakistan,” he said, staring out at the waves.
His younger brother had warned him of a daunting journey ahead — “Expect it to be hell,” were his words — and so he was relying on the religious items around his neck: a small leather pouch containing two folded Koranic inscriptions, from his father and his wife, and a black pendant inscribed with the words “Y’Allah Madaat” — “Oh God, help me.”
Over the following weeks, he sent several messages: from Bangkok, where he was staying in a cramped room with 16 other refugees (“Waiting, waiting, and so on,” he wrote), then, in late March, from Indonesia.
Master had been arrested in a car headed for a port in Malaysia, Hussain said. But he had managed to escape, and had arrived in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, where he would seek a boat to Australia.
This month, a boat carrying about 90 people, most of them Hazaras, sunk en route to Australia. Hussain was depressed, but undeterred. “I’m looking forward,” he wrote. Then he added: “May God help me.”