Rohingya refugee braves sea to pursue Australian citizenship

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Refugees and other migrants from south Asia undertake dangerous ocean voyages, often in rickety, unseaworthy vessels, hoping to reach a better life. They are being intercepted by Australian authorities and held in Pacific island concentration camps. For some, however, the persistence finally pays off.

On the fifth day at sea in a tiny 5-metre boat with 10 men crammed on board, Sayed Kasim knew he was going to die.

He had set out from Indonesia hoping to reach Australia for a better life for his wife and four children, who were stuck in a makeshift refugee camp for ethnic Rohingyas in Malaysia.

Kasim had no future in the camp where he had fruitlessly waited 17 years to be settled in Australia or some other country.

“I had to do it for my children. I had to try to get across the sea to Australia so my children could get an education and have a future. There was no future in the camp. We wait 10, 20, 30 more years … for what?

“I didn’t want my body to feed the fish, but I had to try for my children,” he told dpa.

When Kasim was 18, he was arrested and tortured by the military in Myanmar as he tried to establish a secret school for Rohingya children. The Burmese military did not want the persecuted Muslim minority to become educated and rise out of poverty, he said.

He escaped to Thailand, then Malaysia. But he was trapped and going nowhere. He worked with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees as a coordinator in the camp where 17,000 Rohingya waited endlessly for settlement.

In the camp, Kasim married and had four children, but there was no sign that he would ever be accepted for refugee settlement.

“We have nothing in the Malaysia camp, no future, no education, no rights, no citizenship.”

He scraped together 9,000 Malay ringgit (2,329 US dollars) and with nine friends paid a people smuggler to get them to Australia.

“It was very scary, water coming into the boat all the time. The engine broke and we drifted. The boat started breaking up. Then a plane flew over and an Australian navy ship picked us up. They saved our lives.”

Kasim spent 20 months in Australian detention centres waiting to be accepted as a refugee.

“They knew all Rohingya were refugees, but they want paperwork that took a long time, too long,” he recalled.

In 2012, with the help of a benefactor who sponsored him, he was allowed to settle in Australia as a refugee. Four years after he embarked on his dangerous voyage, his wife and children reunited with him in Sydney.

“That was the happiest day of my life. So happy. Thank you Australia.”

Kasim has a good factory job and an apartment in western Sydney. His children are doing well in school and his wife Jumabibi had a baby in Australia.

Kasim says proudly that in October, he can become an Australian citizen.

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