Too often, the story of asylum is told in the breathless terms of the abstract news story. Another group of immigrants was swept up by the authorities; another boat full of asylum seekers was lost at sea. The statistics are shocking, compelling, but rarely personal. Here, in contrast, is the intimate story of the photographer Barat Ali Batoor (TED Talk:
My desperate journey with a human smuggler), who was compelled to escape the persecution of ethnic Hazaras in Pakistan in 2012. His journey by air, land and sea through Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia took weeks, cost thousands of dollars and nearly ended in disaster countless times. Says Batoor, who is now an advocate for asylum seekers, “I thought that I might die on this journey.”
Yet he also saw the importance of capturing the underreported paradox: The cost for those who must risk their lives in order to seek safety. Here, see some photos from his incredible journey and hear his story in his own words.
It was a desperate decision to leave everything behind. I flew to Thailand and waited for four days to be taken to Malaysia. With three other men seeking asylum, I crossed at the border by boat and was picked up on the other side by Malaysian smugglers. We traveled for five and a half hours by car to Kuala Lumpur, with our heads kept between our knees the whole time to be avoid being seen. I paid $1000 US for this leg of the trip.
In Kuala Lumpur we were kept under house arrest for three nights. We couldn’t even look out of the window. Here my fellow asylum seekers pray not to drown or be arrested.
Next we were taken to Sumatra, Indonesia, where we rested for a few hours in this house before being crammed into a car for a 21-hour nonstop ride with the windows kept locked. We were taken to an airport, where one of our smugglers had arranged boarding passes for us to get to Jakarta. The total cost of the trip from Kuala Lumpur to Jakarta was $2500.
It’s common for smugglers to make false promises – about how clean and spacious the boats are, how there’s bottled water and great life jackets. So asylum seekers that eventually make it will call back home to warn their friends and family: Be prepared, because there’s nothing on the boat. In anticipation, my friend Ali paid $120 for an upgraded life jacket. I bought one too.
In Bogor, a town outside Jakarta, we stayed in a villa friendly to asylum seekers, where I met Jafar, pictured here with me, sleeping. About a week into my stay, he and my other two roommates (one of whom took this picture) were preparing to leave on their voyage, and they asked if I wanted to leave early and join them. I almost went, but decided to wait. It was my fate: Their boat sank, and only Jafar lived. I was shocked and terrified about what would happen to me.
The night we got the call that our boat was ready, we were shepherded onto a small speed boat that was to take us to a larger fishing boat anchored at sea. We got lost — it took more than an hour to find the fishing boat, which was already crowded. The other 92 passengers and I hoped we would make it to Christmas Island, Australia, where we would wait to have our refugee status assessed. The cost to get there was $6000.
The boat was tiny for how many of us there were. We had to hide below deck to avoid being seen and take shifts to get fresh air. Underneath the deck, the all-male passengers were mostly praying. I didn’t have time to pray – I just took photos.
By the second night of the voyage, the weather turned. People were crying, praying, recalling their loved ones. As water poured into the boat, we all lost hope. We thought it was really the end. I thought about how I had given my life for nothing, that if I had another chance to live I wouldn’t have taken the boat. We were watching our deaths.
The captain announced we would have to turn back, and we climbed on deck and waved our jackets to attract attention from anyone passing by. Asylum seekers who had gone before us had warned us that if a boat got into trouble the crew might try to escape with makeshift rafts, so we assigned men to keep guard over them. All our fears of getting caught by the police were gone — in fact that would have helped us. We just wanted to survive.
In the end, the crew didn’t abandon us and got everyone to safety. We all made it to the coast of Ujung Kulon, a remote peninsula at the extreme western end of Java, our boat crashing onto the rocks. Here you can see people running into the jungle to avoid being captured by local police. I slipped into the water and destroyed my camera. Thankfully, my memory card survived.
Postscript: Batoor did eventually gain asylum after being arrested following this last photo. He now lives in Melbourne, Australia, where he is working on a documentary about his journey. Watch
his talk to hear the rest of his story.