5 May 2015

Feature interview - Barat Ali Batoor

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:10 pm on 5 May 2015

Europe is calling it a migration crisis. Almost daily, barely seaworthy boats filled with desperate people attempt to cross the Mediterranean in search of a better life.

Asylum seekers.

Asylum seekers. Photo: Barat Ali Batoor

Last month, more than 800 people drowned trying to reach Europe, and the continent's leaders are struggling to find new ways to suppress the people-smuggling operations and cope with rescue operations.

Barat Ali Batoor knows the desperation that leads people to make this perilous journey.

"It’s so devastating for me to see these stories....It reminds me of the journey I experienced in 2012. We almost died and didn’t have any hope that we would survive."

Barat Ali Batoor, a photographer now living in Melbourne, paid people smugglers in Indonesia thousands of dollars to get to Australia and captured the perilous journey on his camera.

He is a Hazara from Afghanistan, a group of mostly Shiite Muslims in an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country.

"My family migrated from Afghanistan to Pakistan because of the ongoing persecution and operation against the Hazaras," he said.

He returned to Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001.

"When America invaded Afghanistan, there was a sign of hope for Hazaras, that now there will be a time when we can live there and we won’t be persecuted and oppressed. It was better than the past. I went there in order to go to my own country and do something for my people," he said.

Mr Batoor was working as a photo-journalist and put himself in danger when his work on a project called The Dancing Boys was published in the Washington Post.

"I had been working with children on the street. These boys are mostly orphans or poor people. They are bought by warlords or other powerful people and they make them dance at parties and use them as sex slaves."

Mr Batoor received death threats after the photos were published and was forced to return to Pakistan.

The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan

But Pakistan was no longer a safe haven for Hazaras, according to Mr Batoor.

“When I got there things were really not secure. My family was really worried about me. They said 'you have to go'. Many people at that time because of the security situation were leaving for Australia” he said.

He paid people smugglers who arranged for him to travel from Pakistan to Indonesia. He knew the risks.

"Many of my friends have drowned in the sea....I knew how difficult and risky it was. Behind that risk we had a tiny little hope for our future. We didn’t have that in Pakistan or Afghanistan."

Despite the risks, Mr Batoor left in the night and boarded an old, overloaded vessel with 92 other people on board.

"Once you are travelling you have no control over your life and you are at the mercy of these smugglers...The only option is to go ahead."

Crowded below deck, fear dominated everyone’s thoughts. Fear of Indonesian authorities, fear of the wild seas.

"People were afraid all the time. You spend your time hiding and hoping for help. We didn’t have hope of surviving," Mr Batoor said.

Asylum seekers.

Asylum seekers. Photo: Barat Ali Batoor

The boat began taking on water two days into the journey to Christmas Island.

"When we were in the middle of the sea and the water was coming in. We were hoping anyone could save us but no one came by."

Luckily, the captain made the decision to turn around. They reached a small island, crashing the boat into the rocks. A boat from a nearby resort spotted them and turned them over to Indonesian Police. They were arrested and taken to a detention facility.

"I did not want to spend my life in a detention center. I decided whatever happened, I had to escape. Early in the morning we removed the glass from the window and escaped."

In bare feet, with no money, the escapees took a taxi. Luckily a journalist Mr Batoor knew paid for the taxi and offered to help, urging Mr Batoor to go through the United Nations refugee process instead of getting on another boat.

"My friends said I should not risk my life just to go to Australia. Be patient, be hopeful they told me."

But Mr Batoor said he knew of many cases where people could wait up to 10 years to be processed by the UN.

"I was not happy in the beginning."

With his contacts from his work as a photojournalist, Mr Batoor’s case for refugee status was expedited.

Afghani Refugees in Istanbul - photographs by Barat Ali Batoor

He now lives in Melbourne and sends money home to his family in Pakistan. Australia is home - but he does not agree with some of the ways Australia deals with boatpeople, including sending them to detention centers offshore in Nauru and turning boats back at sea.

"You can’t turn a blind eye to those in real need. They are not saving lives; they are putting them at risk. Do not punish them. They have chosen to come to your country seeking asylum."

Mr Batoor is doing what he can in his new home to raise awareness about refugees by speaking out about his experience.


Related stories

More migrant deaths as boat sinks

Thousands rescued from the sea

Migrant crisis forces action plan

EU under pressure as hundreds feared drowned

Hundreds feared dead after boat capsizes



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