On Friday November 20th I had the opportunity to visit the 254 Tamil refugees who are on a boat moored at the port of Merak in Indonesia. 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 lock down for more than a week, even the media have been denied access. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) have also withdrawn their services.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 October 11th, 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 that “Kevin Rudd 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. This old wooden ship is built to carry about 40 – 50 people, but more than 250 are crammed onto it. The first people to approach me were children. A girl of about 7 years old told me that she had written a letter to the Australian authorities. It was written in Tamil but she asked me if I could get it translated and show it to them. Several other children had also written letters, one of which was in English. (See text below)
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. One man, Nimal, started asking me some questions about the Australian Governments attitude to asylum seekers. Within seconds I was surrounded by dozens of people who all wanted know why Rudd would not allow them safe passage to Australia.
After a brief discussion with the refugees’ spokespeople Alex and Kumar, I was taken on board the boat. The tour of the boat took some time because in every corner of the vessel I met with people who wanted to tell me their stories. One of the first families I met had with them a baby who was only 6 months old. The father said to me “We have been here 50 days now. This child has spent more than one quarter of her life in these terrible conditions”.
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.
The weather in Merak is dreadful. The rainy season has begun, which means it is wet, windy and humid. The boat is covered by tarpaulins but in many areas these covers are torn and when the rain is heavy the decks get covered in water. This means people are sleeping in wet areas, often without enough clothes and blankets to keep them warm.
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. After being shown around the boat, as many people as could fit sat down on the main deck where we conducted a meeting. 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 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.
A few days prior to my visit it was reported that the Indonesian government was looking to deport the refugees back to Sri Lanka. But the day before my visit the Sydney Morning Herald was reporting that the Indonesian government had changed their mind and they would now allow them to be processed by the United Nations. Unfortunately no one on board had been made aware of this. Even if it were true it would not guarantee them safe passage to Australia.
All on the boat were fully aware of the deal that the Rudd government had done with another group of Tamil refugees who were on board the Oceanic Viking. 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.
“We are all fleeing the same persecution” one man said “We are all refugees, we should all be treated equally”. Another man said “We believe Kevin Rudd has both a legal and a moral obligation to take us. He is a signatory to the UN refugee convention. Indonesia is not. If he believes in human rights how could he possibly let us go to an Indonesian detention centre?”
“We are resilient people, we have escaped war, we have lived in camps. All we are asking is that we are treated as human beings. If we go back to Sri Lanka we will not be treated as humans. We will go to jail, be killed or just disappear” he said.
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. A 19 year old man was pushed into a white van and has not been seen for several days. It is quite possible that, along with hundreds of others, he will never be seen again.
This is the reality of life for Tamils in Sri Lanaka. 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. This brave stance should be acknowledged by all workers and poor people in the region. As one man said to me as I was leaving “We are just ordinary people, not different to people in Australia. We did not start the war, we are the victims. All we are asking for is support.”
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.
Letter from Brintha, 8 year old Tamil refugee:
Journey to Australia
We are Sri Lankans, there were, kidnap, kill, gun shots and bombing. Because of that reason we lost our half family and we were Sri Lankan refugees and also we lost our properties and gutere. At that time we heard that Australia takes refugees in the country. So we got ready to go to Australia. We came to Malaysia. After two months we went to the forests. We got a hard life. For example: we got wet in the rain and drank muddy water. And also we live in middle of insects. And later we started our journey on the wooden boat. One day suddenly the engine stopped and the weather condition was bad. It shook a lot. And the engine was okay. While we were traveling to the Indonesian border we were arrested by the Indonesian Navy. We came to Indonesian habour of ‘Merak’. And we are waiting in the boat for one month asking Indonesian government to give us a solution. But still we didn’t get an answer. While we were arrested by the navy we asked the Australian Embazy so that lady said “you can go to the land” but we didn’t get down if we have done it we would have been in the ‘detention centre’ She was a big liyer. Her name is Miss Mickey. We had a hard life every where please gives us a solution.
Thank you, Brintha.