Merak asylum seekers call for just solution to their plight

[For five months, 254 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers have refused to disembark the rickety cargo boat Jaya Lestari 5 which was towed into the Indonesian port Merak, after being intercepted by the Indonesian navy at the request of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. One pregnant woman onboard is due in early March. Her daughter has chicken pox and the rest of the 31 children on the boat are at risk of the disease. On February 12, the asylum seekers on the boat issued “A call for urgent action by the Indonesian and Australian governments”, which is reprinted below. The statement calls for a “just solution” for the stranded Tamil asylum seekers.]

The Merak asylum seekers need a just solution

The situation at Merak has dragged on much too long. For over 120 days, the 254 Tamil asylum seekers have been stranded there. They have suffered hardships at the hands of the Australian and Indonesian authorities. The International Organisation of Migration (IOM) [which is] funded by Australia to provide welfare assistance for asylum seekers has used its control over food, and medicine and other welfare to deprive the refugees of basic needs such as medicine, tarpaulins, and toilets to try to force people off the boat.

With each passing day, the conditions deteriorate further and the suffering grows. The lack of medical attention and basic care cost the life of a 29 year-old man, Jacob Christin, in December 2009. Ministers of the Australian government and now Prime Minister Rudd himself have indicated that the Australian government will re-settle people from the boat found to be refugees. The Indonesian government says that it will not use force against the refugees and asylum seekers. It also says that it expects the Australian government to play a role in resettling the Merak people. The misery at Merak must not be allowed to continue, day after day, week after week.

Conditions needed to resolve the situation

The Indonesian government is proposing that the Merak people disembark and be held in a secure renovated warehouse — a detention facility — in Bekasi. They have agreed that UNHCR will have access to the asylum seekers after they disembark. These conditions go some way to meeting the minimum conditions necessary if people on the boat are to be confident that they have a secure future. But there are issues that must be settled if there is going to a just resolution to the situation at Merak:

  1. the Indonesian government must immediately open access to human rights, welfare, and other groups to provide support to the people at Merak;
  2. immigration verification and UNHCR processing can begin without having to disembark;
  3. that the asylum seekers have legal assistance for immigration verification and processing;
  4. that there is immediate access for human rights and other welfare groups to ensure the provision of medical and other humanitarian support, as well as independent supervision of disembarkation and on-shore accommodation conditions;
  5. on-shore accommodation for the Merak people should be open, not locked. It is the height of hypocrisy for the Australian government to pursue the Indonesian Solution that allows conditions in Indonesia that would be unacceptable in Australia. Under the formal requirements of Australian refugee policy, families with children are not held in locked facilities;
  6. a guarantee that the people will be kept together;
  7. that the refugees are allowed to keep their mobile phones and the laptops that have been their lines of communication with the outside world;
  8. a guarantee that they will not be refouled i.e., not returned to danger in Sri Lanka.

On its part, the Australian government should immediately provide whatever humanitarian and financial assistance is needed to allow the Indonesian government to meet these requirements. But most significantly the Australian government must move beyond the vague statements that it will play a role in resettlement, to stating clearly the conditions and timeline for resettlement.

Unless these conditions are met, there can be no enduring solution for the asylum seekers and refugees. People who have left the boat have been kept in appalling immigration cells in Jakarta. Indonesian officials violated internationally recognized protocols regarding refugee rights by allowing Sri Lankan navy officers to interrogate refugees in the cells.

There must be an immediate improvement for the humanitarian conditions for the boat. The systematic deprivation and mistreatment of the asylum seekers must stop. Indonesian officers (such as the Indonesian police officer, Pakino) who have been shown to be guilty of harassment and abuse of asylum seekers must be withdrawn and disciplined for their actions.

Reject the Indonesian Solution

On a wider scale of refugee rights and regional policy, the Australian and Indonesian governments must commit to a drastic re-assessment of the Indonesian Solution. At the moment, the Indonesian government is effectively involved in a conspiracy with the Australian government to deny Tamil and other asylum seekers under the Refugee Convention.

Asylum seekers are not criminals. They have an internationally recognized right to seek asylum. They should not be arbitrarily detained in Indonesia or Australia. Australia should not be funding, and Indonesia should not be building, detention centres when people need houses, schools and medical centres. Australia must help Indonesia establish refugee processing to international standards and must guarantee re-settlement for those found to be refugees. Last year Australia re-settled only 32 refugees from Indonesia.

Urgent Action Needed

The Indonesian government can act immediately to open access to the refugees, allow humanitarian assistance and begin immigration verification. It should release those being held in Jakarta and allow them to return to the boat if they wish. The Australian government should instruct IOM to return to the port areas and provide humanitarian assistance.

Urgent meetings are needed between the Indonesian government, representatives from the boat, Indonesian human rights, Legal Aid, refugee rights and welfare NGOs to resolve the outstanding issues. These meetings should also include representatives of the Australian government and Australian refugee advocates to discuss the conditions of resettlement.

The people on the boat at Merak are fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka. One hundred and nine of them are already recognised UNHCR refugees. All they are asking is that their rights as refugees and human beings are protected by the Australian and Indonesian governments — both of which say they uphold human rights and the values of the Refugee Convention.