Last year photographer Mike Read travelled to Indonesia to document the daily lives of Hazara refugees fleeing persecution in Afghanistan. The Australian government's current policy of turning back asylum seeker boats has left Indonesia to deal with thousands of refugees in limbo. Unable to work or study, they spend their time waiting for their claims to be processed. Mike's series attempts to provide a narrative for what happens next for the people most affected by the controversial policy.
VICE: What were the impressions of Australia from the asylum seekers you met?
Mike Read: I shot in June last year and in January this year. You can see the difference within that time frame. Initially, people were a lot more hopeful but now a lot of that hope is kind of gone. When they speak about being resettled somewhere, they don't have anywhere in mind—previously they were expecting that Australia would be where they'd end up.
How do they support themselves in Indonesia?
They're not allowed to work or study. That's part of the problem. Now that the boats have stopped, the people that were once living there for a few months are now looking at up to six years years in Indonesia. So as far as supporting themselves, most people have sold everything before they've left, and they're living off those savings. The other problem is, it's still technically not legal over there for asylum seekers to live in the community. You get a lot of people handing themselves into immigration and staying in detention facilities because at least that way they've got housing, daily food, and some medical access. And that's knowing there's a lot of abuse going on in these places, but it's kind of their only option.
What's the Indonesian community's response?
In Cisarua, a lot of asylum seekers won't go out at night because there are stories about them being bashed by locals. I think it's just a culture clash. Local government sometimes cracks down on asylum seekers but you always hear shopkeepers and local businesses say they like having them there because generally they don't cause trouble and it's good for business because it's extra business.
What's their day-to-day like?
Afghani guys normally make bread in the house each morning. After that it really is a lot of sitting around and doing nothing. A lot of the time they'll be on their phones looking at Facebook or talking to people back home on some messenger app. There's this real overarching boredom that exists. And that goes back to the fact that they can't work, they can't study.
How did they feel about you taking photos of them?
That was an interesting experience. One of the guys loved going to the gym, so whenever I'd get my camera out he'd break into different poses. I lent him my camera once and when I got it back I got all these shirtless poses against trees. There's also this thing about how they want to be represented in photos, a lot of the time they want to take photos of each other to post on Facebook and show their situation in a very idyllic way.
After staying with these people, do you feel a certain responsibility towards them?
One of the conversations I had with everyone was they'd ask when the next election is, and whether I think Tony Abbott will win. You kind of have a responsibility to not give them false hope. Because the political situation here is that both sides are just as bad as each other when it comes to asylum policy.
But also the way we talk about asylum seekers and the way the whole debate is framed, I feel a lot of people are preaching to the converted. In the end it doesn't get anywhere, it just keeps people in the same position. There're a lot of people doing a lot of great work advocating for change but the conversation has to also look at things like the financial cost of offshore detention. There are people who will only change their mind on the whole policy if you frame it in economic terms. I hear a lot of people saying Australians are unhappy with the way the government deals with or treats asylum seekers or refugees, but surveys show that the public are pretty much behind the government on it.
So what's next?
I'm hoping to have an exhibition in Sunbury and bring it to an audience that wouldn't normally see it. We can all sit around with like-minded people about how terrible things are but I don't know if that's going to change it. You have to engage people on a middle ground to change their opinions. Sometimes it's impossible but if you turn the tide of public opinion you can change policy.
Words by Emma Do, follow her on Twitter.