Un­der­stand­ing the men­tal­ity, back­ground and rea­son for asy­lum seek­ers com­ing to Aus­tralia is vital to hu­man­ise their sto­ries.

The New York Times mag­a­zine has an in­cred­i­ble fea­ture in its mag­a­zine this week, writ­ten by Luke Mo­gel­son (back­ground to the story here) and pho­tographed by Joel Van Houdt, that stun­ningly cap­tures the chal­lenges, heartache and un­cer­tainty of refugees des­per­ately want­ing to set­tle in Aus­tralia from Iran, Afghanistan, Pak­istan and be­yond.

This is one of the most lyri­cal and mov­ing pieces of jour­nal­ism I’ve read in ages:

It’s sur­pris­ingly sim­ple, from Kabul, to en­list the ser­vices of the smug­glers Aus­tralian au­thor­i­ties are so keen to ap­pre­hend. The prob­lem was that every Afghan I spoke to who had been to In­done­sia in­sisted that no West­ern jour­nal­ist would ever be al­lowed onto a boat: Para­noia over agents was too high. Con­se­quently, the pho­tog­ra­pher Joel van Houdt and I de­cided to pose as refugees. Be­cause we are both white, we thought it pru­dent to de­vise a cover. We would say we were Geor­gian (other op­tions in the re­gion were re­jected for fear of run­ning into Russ­ian speak­ers), had sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion about our gov­ern­ment’s ac­tiv­i­ties dur­ing the 2008 war (hence, in the event of a search, our cam­eras and recorders), trav­eled to Kabul in search of a smug­gler and learned some Dari dur­ing our stay. An Afghan col­league of mine, Hakim (whose name has been changed to pro­tect his iden­tity), would pre­tend to be a local schemer an­gling for a foothold in the trade. It was all overly elab­o­rate and highly im­plau­si­ble.

When we were ready, Hakim phoned an el­derly Afghan man, liv­ing in Jakarta, who goes by the hon­orific Hajji Sahib. Hajji Sahib is a well-known smug­gler in In­done­sia; his cell­phone num­ber, among Afghans, is rel­a­tively easy to ob­tain. Hakim ex­plained that he had two Geor­gians — “Levan” and “Mikheil” — whom he wished to send Hajji Sahib’s way. Hajji Sahib, never ques­tion­ing our story, agreed to get Joel and me from Jakarta to Christ­mas Is­land for $4,000 each. This rep­re­sents a slightly dis­counted rate, for which Hakim, as­pir­ing mid­dle­man, promised more busi­ness down the road.

A few days later, we vis­ited Sarai Shahzada, Kabul’s bustling cur­rency mar­ket. Tucked be­hind an out­door bazaar on the banks of a pol­luted river that bends through the Old City, the en­trance to Sarai Shahzada is a nar­row cor­ri­dor mobbed with traders pre­sid­ing over stacks of Pak­istani ru­pees, Iran­ian rials, Amer­i­can dol­lars and Afghan afgha­nis. The en­closed court­yard to which the cor­ri­dor leads, the ex­te­rior stair­wells as­cend­ing the sur­round­ing build­ings, the bal­conies that run the length of every floor — no piece of real es­tate is spared a hard-nosed dealer hawk­ing bun­dled bricks of cash. The more il­lus­tri­ous op­er­a­tors oc­cupy cramped of­fices and offer a va­ri­ety of ser­vices in ad­di­tion to ex­change. Most of them are bro­kers of the money-trans­fer sys­tem, known as hawala, used through­out the Mus­lim world. Under the hawala sys­tem, if some­one in Kabul wishes to send money to a rel­a­tive in Pak­istan, say, he will pay the amount, plus a small com­mis­sion, to a bro­ker in Sarai Shahzada, and in re­turn re­ceive a code. The re­cip­i­ent uses this code to col­lect the funds from a bro­ker in Pe­shawar, who is then owed the trans­ferred sum by the bro­ker in Sarai Shahzada (a debt that can be set­tled with fu­ture trans­ac­tions flow­ing in re­verse).

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