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Indonesia: Eyewitness report from Tamil refugee boat
SOCIALIST PARTY (CWI in Australia) national organiser Anthony Main recently visited the 254 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees currently moored at the port in Merak, Indonesia. Below he reports on the discussions that took place during his visit and on the conditions faced on board the ship.
On Friday 20 November, I had the opportunity to visit the Tamil refugees in Merak. Prior to my visit I had been in regular phone contact with the refugees but to see the deplorable conditions on the boat first hand was indeed a shock.
The port has been in lockdown for more than a week, even the media have been denied access. The International Organisation for Migration has also withdrawn its services. Clearly there is a joint attempt by the Australian and Indonesian governments to deny these people basic necessities in the hope that it will wear them down and force them off the ship.
I was able to visit the boat as part of a delegation that included members of the Confederation Congress of Indonesian Union Alliance (KASBI), the Working Peoples Association (PRP) and a human rights lawyer. We were also accompanied by an official from the Indonesian Human Rights Commission.
These asylum seekers are all from the north and east of Sri Lanka. They include children, pregnant women and the elderly. All have been affected by the brutal war and have experienced their own hardships as a result of the oppression of the Tamil minority. As one women told me: "We all have our own individual horror stories".
On 11 October, on route to Australia, their 30-metre boat was intercepted by the Indonesian navy. It has been no secret that the Australian government pressured the Indonesian authorities to act before the boat made it into Australian waters. One man commented: "Kevin Rudd [Australian PM] calls this the Indonesian solution, how can it be a solution if we are facing deportation or jail?"
As soon as we arrived at the boat, people started to come out one by one. The first people to approach me were children.
After being in isolation for more than a week it was not surprising that the people on board the boat were desperate to hear news and discuss the dispute. Within seconds I was surrounded by dozens of people who all wanted know why Rudd would not allow them safe passage to Australia.
Most of the people on the boat are sick in some way. Many have diarrhoea and some have malaria. There are also 15 diabetics on board who have had no access to insulin for weeks.
On several occasions people have needed urgent medical assistance which has been denied by the Indonesian authorities. There is also only one toilet on the boat, meaning people have to line up at all times of the day. Meanwhile the rainy season has begun, which means it is wet, windy and humid.
The Indonesian navy keeps a close eye on the ship and they are responsible for delivering food and water several times a day. The food is of very poor quality and many say it is making them sick. They have no hot water and the fresh water they have runs out before the end of the day.
While the conditions are horrendous, most people were less interested in complaining and more interested in discussing the politics of the dispute. We discussed many issues including the political situation in Sri Lanka, the attitude of ordinary people in Australia to refugees and how to best build support for their struggle.
I started by telling them that while there are polarised views in Australia about refugees, there are many people who are supporting them. As well as the Socialist Party (CWI in Australia) there are many progressive groups in the region who are campaigning for their rights.
I reported about actions and protests that had already taken place and those that are planned in the next few weeks. I also told them about support that had come from trade unions in both Australia and Indonesia.
All on the boat were fully aware of the deal that the Rudd government had done with another group of 78 Tamil refugees who were on board the Oceanic Viking [ie UNHCR certified refugees would be resettled within four to six weeks of disembarkation, while others would be resettled within 12 weeks if found by the UNHCR to be refugees].
While the situation for the refugees in Merak is slightly different, because they are not on an Australian vessel and were not intercepted by the Australian Navy, they are adamant that they should be afforded, at the very least, the same treatment.
Only a few hours after I left the ship one of the refugees sent me a text message saying that they had just received news that a relative of one of the asylum seekers had been kidnapped by the Sri Lankan army.
This is the reality of life for Tamils in Sri Lanka. But despite their concern about the future, the one thread that ran through all of the discussions was that they are prepared to stay on the boat as long as it takes.
The Socialist Party and our sister parties in the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) will do all we can to build support for this group of Tamil refugees and to campaign for the rights of all workers and oppressed people in Sri Lanka.