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A Refugee's Tale: He Escaped Iran, Now He's Stuck On A Pacific Island


We recently placed a call to a refugee who's stuck on the other side of the world.


INSKEEP: Hi, it's Steve Inskeep. Can you hear me?

JAMES: Yeah.

INSKEEP: The call by Skype went to a remote Pacific island. That island has become a kind of warehouse, a storage center for human beings. Australia parks some refugees there. That is one part of the country's response to the worldwide movement of refugees. Our phone call offered us a chance to hear how that policy works for one person. He faces indefinite detention on a tiny island with a few thousand people, much of it stripped of vegetation by phosphate mining. In our call, we didn't hear many signs of life.


INSKEEP: I think we just heard a motorbike go by. Is that right?

JAMES: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Although it sounds very quiet where you are for the most part.

The man asked that we call him James, which he says is his English name. He has another name, his legal name, which appears on paperwork we have seen, papers that say he has been given refugee status. James asked us not to use that name, though, because he fears reprisal from Australian authorities.

Where are you from?

JAMES: I'm from Iran.

INSKEEP: And what were you doing when you lived there?

JAMES: My father was a wrestling coach, and I was wrestling coach, too. But I have two or three job more.

INSKEEP: So he had work, but James says he was not a devout Muslim.

JAMES: And I was drinking. They arrest me, and they lash me. They put me in jail sometimes, you know, my father have to pay them. And I told them straight away I'm not Muslim. I do nothing that's bad, and I don't annoy anyone.

INSKEEP: So you were caught drinking, which is illegal in Iran.

JAMES: Yeah.

INSKEEP: We could not verify the details of his story, but James says he spent time in solitary confinement. When released, he fled the country on a fake passport and ended up in Indonesia. He paid smugglers, then, to take him across the water to Australia.

JAMES: Actually, I don't know nothing about Australia. I just want to run away and find a good country to live there.

INSKEEP: How did you try to get from Indonesia to Australia?

JAMES: Some people find one man. That man gets $5,000 U.S. and they put the people inside a boat that's a fishing boat (laughter). We was 56 people inside.

INSKEEP: We can confirm this part of James's story because there was a journalist on the boat who remembers him. Luke Mogelson was a freelance reporter who pretended to be a refugee himself to capture the journey for The New York Times. Mogelson describes all those people crammed into a fishing boat just 30-feet long and not designed for the open water. They had little food.

LUKE MOGELSON: But nobody had an appetite anyway because almost everyone became seasick, so they were throwing up constantly, and people were really scared. I mean, a lot of these people had never been on the ocean before. And, you know, you could see them crying, shivering, perilously dehydrated, but they really did not complain.

INSKEEP: Theirs was the story of refugees and migrants around the world. Many pay smugglers and risk death to find better conditions. Back in 2013, Australian leaders resolved they would never let in refugees if they approached Australia by boat. They said smugglers were profiting, refugees were drowning, and the traffic had to be stopped for the refugees' own good. Reporter Luke Mogelson says the people on the boat had heard this, but people from Iran or Syria or Afghanistan or Myanmar couldn't easily go back.

MOGELSON: They knew about the law, but they really had faith that if they could survive this journey to Australia, if they could only arrive there somehow, they would be admitted into the country.

INSKEEP: So James, like the others, took a gamble and lost. Australia's military intercepted the boat. James was eventually transferred to a camp on Nauru, 1,800 miles away from Australia in the middle of the Pacific. Some refugees there live in tents while others are in mobile homes amid the local population. As we've heard in recent weeks, documents have revealed allegations that some of the refugees have been abused by the contractors who were supposed to care for them or by the local population. Australia's Senate said just this week that it will investigate. But for James, that Iranian refugee, the central fact of life is what is missing - hope. He's not allowed to go forward, and it's not safe to go back.

What are conditions like there for you?

JAMES: It's really, really bad. Everything is horrible here, and we don't know how long we have to stay here. And we don't know when we can go into Australia or to any other country.

INSKEEP: Would you describe what you do to pass the time in an ordinary day?

JAMES: I'm sleeping 6 a.m. and I woke up at 4 o'clock. I'm cooking something. I use internet. I just chat with some friend and family and at nighttime I'm going to bed again. We don't do anything here in Nauru.

INSKEEP: How's your wife doing?

JAMES: She's depressed all the time. She's crying. She's hang herself when she was seven months pregnant.

INSKEEP: Excuse me. You just said she tried to hang herself when she was seven months pregnant. Is that right?

JAMES: Yeah. She tried to hang herself, and she's depressed. She's all the time at home. She's crying, and she's not well. You know, I run away from my country because they want kill me straight away. And then I come to Australia. Australian government is kill me step by step, slowly, slowly. It's nothing different.

INSKEEP: Stories like this have provoked debate in Australia but have yet to change the situation. Australia says it will not let James and others like him into the country for fear of encouraging more refugees to come by boat. Few other countries are willing to take them, and it's not safe to go home. So for James, this island of 8 square miles is the world all he's allowed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.