A young Iraqi mother and her two little children died when the flimsy boat transporting them illegally to Australia smashed against a cliff, devastating the father waiting for them in Sydney and shining a disturbing light on the murky world of people smuggling.
Hopes of Iraqi family's new life dashed on the rocks of Australian island
SYDNEY // Members of the Ibrahimy family paid more than $30,000 and travelled nearly 10,000 kilometres from Iran for what they hoped would be a life of opportunity in Australia.
"They came so close, but they never made it," said a grief-stricken Madian el Ibrahimy, whose wife, Zman, 24, and their two children, Nzar, 4, and 8-month-old Zahra, were killed when the people-smuggler boat they were travelling in smashed against rocks at the foot of Christmas Island cliffs.
Mr el Ibrahimy, 27, had taken the same route to Australia six months earlier. A stateless Iraqi whose family was deported to Iran nearly 30 years ago, he was in detention on Christmas Island when he learnt that Zman and the children had perished on their way to join him. His two half-brothers, Ali, 18, and Mohammed, 13, survived, along with their cousin, 17-year-old Hussain.
Thousands of desperate asylum-seekers make the perilous voyage each year to Christmas Island, where the shipwreck claimed at least 30 lives last December.
The 100 or so passengers on the flimsy wooden boat, which had set off from Indonesia, were all from Iran or Iraq. Forty-two were rescued, but only 30 bodies were found - Zman's and Nzar's are among the missing. The Ibrahimy men spent two months on the remote Indian Ocean island 2,750km west of Darwin, before being transferred to the mainland.
They were released last month from the Villawood detention centre in Sydney. The same week, tensions boiled over on Christmas Island. Hundreds of men rioted at the detention centre there, setting fire to buildings and storming the perimeter fence.
Refugee advocates blamed the trouble on overcrowding and delays in processing asylum claims.
The disturbances were widely condemned on the mainland, where critics of the Labor government said the trouble showed that the immigration detention system - and Australia's border control policies - were on the verge of collapse.
Now awaiting a decision on their future, the Ibrahimys remain deeply traumatised. Ali has nightmares about the shipwreck and is terrified of water. Mohammed weeps when he thinks about his niece and nephew, and he misses his mother, who is back in Iraq.
Originally from the Iraqi city of Najaf, the Ibrahimy family was expelled by Saddam Hussein, who had executed Madian's father, an opponent of the regime. Their mother moved to Iran, settling in Qom, when she was pregnant with Madian.
Life in Iran was tough. "We were not allowed to work or study or go to school," said Madian, who supported his family by working illegally in a shoe factory. "We didn't have any rights. We couldn't even buy a car. So we thought we would come to a democratic society, a stable country, to start a new life."
To the family, who have neither Iranian nor Iraqi citizenship, Australia - with its history of welcoming migrants and its respect for democracy and human rights - seemed a beacon of hope.
First to make the journey was Madian's elder brother, Oday, who was granted asylum in 2002 and lives in Sydney. Madian followed last year, after paying Malaysian people-traffickers $10,000 to smuggle him to Australia.
He expected to be in detention for just two or three months when he reached Christmas Island. Once recognised as a refugee, he planned to seek permission for his wife and children to join him, under Australia's family reunion programme. But on the island he discovered that some asylum-seekers had been waiting 18 months for a decision.
He told his wife about the probable delay, but she insisted on making the trip. "I warned her it was a very dangerous journey," he said.
Madian, who had been married to Zman for six years, was reassured to know that she and the children would be travelling with his brothers and cousin.
Ali said he could not wait to leave Iran. "If the police caught us, we were in big trouble because we don't have ID. There was a clampdown on Iraqi illegals. They wanted us to go back to Iraq. Our perception was that the journey to Australia is not very dangerous. It has some risks, but you don't have a choice."
Ali said he thought the family's case for asylum in Australia was strong. Almost all Iranians who arrive by boat, 95 per cent, are accepted as refugees, as are 91 per cent of Iraqis. Of the 5,609 asylum-seekers who reached Australia in 2009-10, 448 were from Iraq and 362 from Iran. Those whose applications are rejected are usually deported.
Before embarking on their trip, the Ibrahimys had to obtain forged passports, which cost them $900 (Dh3,300). On November 17, they drove to Tehran, an hour from Qom, and boarded a flight to Kuala Lumpur. The flights cost $675 for each adult and $400 for each child.
In Malaysia, a fellow Iraqi who had travelled with them contacted Malaysian traffickers - the same ones used by Madian, who had been put on to them by friends in Iran.
The family agreed to pay $12,000 for Ali, Mohammed, Zman and her two children to be transported to Indonesia. Hussain, who paid separately, spent $5,000 on the whole trip.
The smugglers put them all up in a rented house in Kuala Lumpur for 10 days, then drove them to the coast, where they stayed in a beach shack near Port Klang, 60km from the capital. After four days, a boat turned up to carry them across the Malacca Strait to Sumatra island.
The overnight voyage took six hours; they then travelled to the city of Pekanbaru, where they spent five days in the house of a man Ali believes was a soldier with contacts at the airport.
With false United Nations refugee papers, they flew to Jakarta, where they were greeted by Indonesian smugglers - a different syndicate, but with links to the Malaysians.
Five days later, on December 12, the Ibrahimys were driven to a beach near Jakarta, where they boarded the boat to Christmas Island. Zman had called Madian to tell him to expect her and the children within the next three days. For this leg of the journey, she and her brothers-in-law paid the smugglers $12,500.
The boat, which Ali said was "very old and very small", about 20 metres long, set off at dusk. They had little space and the bathroom facilities were rudimentary. However, the passengers were given water, biscuits and instant noodles; both Ali and Madian were treated well by their respective crews, they said, and by the smugglers they dealt with.
On December 15, at about 4am, the boat arrived off Christmas Island and its engine died. Two hours later, a storm blew in, whipping up gigantic waves. "We shouted for help," said Ali. "The boat hit the rocks three times and broke up. Then a big wave capsized it, and everyone was thrown into the water."
By that point dozens of islanders had gathered on the cliff, and were throwing down life jackets. Mohammed managed to grab one. Ali clung to a piece of debris, a wooden staircase from the boat. An Australian navy ship arrived, and launched two inflatables. As rescuers began plucking people from the mountainous seas, Hussain somehow managed to swim to shore. Ali spent three hours in the water. "It was very frightening," he recalled, with a shudder. "I was thinking I will die."
When news of the shipwreck reached the detention centre, Madian feared the worst. And the worst had happened: there was no sign of Zman or Nzar. Zahra's little body was recovered; Madian identified her. Three months on, his anguish has not diminished.
"I'm devastated," he said, gazing at the ground. "But I can't do a thing about it; it's fate. If the bodies of my wife and son were found, I would feel better. But until now, I can't stop thinking about it, because the bodies are still missing."
Ali, too, is still in shock. "I need some time to rebuild my thoughts and my life. I have nightmares. Yesterday the Villawood staff took us to the swimming pool, but I refused to go near the water. I was scared."
Indonesian police believe a notorious smuggler, Haydar Khani, organised the disastrous voyage; he is in custody in Jakarta, awaiting extradition to Australia. The boat's three crew members, all of whom survived, have been charged with harbouring illegal immigrants, and are expected to go on trial in Perth later this year.
Madian's asylum application, meanwhile, has been rejected, despite Oday being resident in Australia. Immigration officials said each claim was considered on its merits. He plans to appeal, although he now feels little enthusiasm about staying in Australia - despite the presence of his brothers and cousin.
"If I could leave for another country, I would," he said. "Here is all bad memories - losing my whole family, being in detention. But I have no other place to go. And my daughter is buried in Sydney."