Sunday 2 January 2000

Tamil refugees holding out for justice

By Jay Fletcher Green Left Weekly After four months, the conditions on a cargo vessel at Port Merak holding more than 240 Tamil refugees have become increasingly squalid. The refugees’ boat had been travelling towards Australia when the Australian government requested Indonesia intercept it. Almost half of those onboard are United Nations recognised refugees and all are fleeing persecution by the Sri Lankan government. Stuck at Merak, the refugees won’t leave the boat due to Indonesia’s poor treatment of asylum seekers. But Australia won’t help them either. Sara Nathan, a Tamil activist living in Sydney, and Pamela Curr, from Melbourne’s Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, along with Canadian activist Jessica Chandrashekar, visited Indonesia over January 25-29 to try to alleviate the dire situation. They were visiting the area near the boat when they were approached by undercover police. All three were held by police and questioned by immigration for 17 hours without charge. They had their passports withheld for three days before finally being deported. Prevented from speaking to the media while in Indonesia, Nathan and Curr were escorted by Indonesian immigration on the plane back to Sydney, where they arrived on January 29. Nathan told Green Left Weekly they were trying to negotiate conditions for the Tamil refugees, who are still holding out on the boat. “We were there to try and get some assurances, that [the Tamils] wanted before they would leave the boat. They didn't want to be held behind bars; they wanted their human rights not to be violated. “They don't want their information to be given to Sri Lankan government officials, which has happened when others have disembarked. They don't want to be deported back to Sri Lanka. “And they want a timeframe for resettlement ... they need reassurance. That’s why we were there.” Nathan told GLW Indonesian officials said Australia’s full-time “ambassador on people smuggling issues”, Peter Woolcott, had postponed two visits to Indonesia. She believed it was to avoid the crisis in Merak. Nathan, Curr and Chandrashekar — who were visiting Indonesia independent of the “special envoy” — were critical of Indonesia’s treatment of the refugees. Nathan said: “There were police roaming around since my plane touched down” — and police had confiscated immigration forms previously handed to the Tamils. “It is clear they are annoyed that Australia wants to keep pretending it is Indonesia's problem.” Woolcott eventually visited Jakarta for two days, ABC Online said on February 4. His visit will no doubt be focused on ensuring Indonesia’s ongoing cooperation in targeting asylum seekers with hopes of coming to Australia. The January 24 Sydney Morning Herald said Indonesia’s foreign minister Marty Natalegawa had repeated the call for the Australian government to take responsibility for the refugees. “We are the ones now principally addressing this issue but we have to bring on board Australia's engagement again.” However, since Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd requested the boat’s interception by the Indonesian navy in October, Australia has insisted it “is a matter for the Indonesian government to resolve”. But Australia provides funding and resources for the “matter” of dealing with asylum seekers in Indonesia. The Australian government doesn't want refugees to travel to Australia, where they are entitled to asylum, and instead pressures Indonesia to “cooperate” with its border control policies. Unlike Australia, Indonesia is not a signatory to the United Nations refugee convention. The Rudd government has, in effect, outsourced refugee detention. Last year it contributed $1 million to Indonesia's detention centres, to refurbish some and to build more. The Tamils in Merak fear Indonesian detention and Sri Lankan persecution — with good reason. Eight refugees left the boat in November. All were taken into Indonesian detention. One man, 25-year-old Gunasekaram Sujendran, travelled back to Sri Lanka and was arrested in Colombo. Others were recently subject to interrogation by Sri Lankan navy officers while in Indonesian detention. More aid and supplies are needed on the boat as well, Nathan said. The conditions have become appalling. “We asked for things like a change in diet”, she said. “They are getting diarrhea. “Can we have a special diet for the pregnant woman? And a special diet for the children — the youngest is now one year old, but they don’t even get milk. “One hundred people had a fungal infection, and we had to ask whether we could give them anti-fungal cream, it's so basic! “And also some clothes, some tents, some portable loos to put by the boat. So they could have some kind of comfort and some kind of sanitation.” There are more cases of disease and sickness every day. One man died in December after vomiting blood for days. Another suffers with a shrapnel injury to his leg, which he has carried from Sri Lanka, and needs emergency surgery. Nathan said a woman who is eight months’ pregnant does not fit into the clothes she first boarded the boat in, but has not been provided with anything more. But supplies purchased by the three women were all confiscated by immigration. Nathan said these are the basic things the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) should be providing, but aren’t. The IOM receives $12 million from Australia to carry out assistance for asylum seekers in Indonesia. “I'd like to know what they're spending their money on”, she said. It has failed to provide any kind of humanitarian assistance to the Merak refugees. “They basically work for the government. “The IOM chief kept asking me ‘why won’t they get off the boat?’ But the IOM’s responsibility is not to get them off the boat, that’s not their job.” The Tamils are refusing to disembark because they fear detention, deportation or years of hopeless waiting. Nathan said these fears were well founded. “We’ve got contacts, good international networks and we did have people from the embassy helping us. And this is how we were treated. This is what we went through. “Can you imagine what refugees with no country backing them, no international support, or access to help from friends and family must be feeling? “Who is going to protect them?”

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