Dire situation for Tamil refugees

December 2, 2009

In an interview with Green Left Weekly, one of the Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers who have been stranded on a boat at the Indonesian port of Merak since October 11, Sanjeev "Alex" Kuhendrarajah, said conditions on the boat are dire.

"The IOM [International Organisation of Migration] has abandoned us and the food is being delivered by the navy", said Kuhendrarajah.

"Water was cut down, and food was reduced in portion. We cannot prove it, however, we strongly believe that the diarrhea and vomiting was caused by food poisoning and lack of care preparing the food.

"A few days ago, it was really bad. Many people were suffering the symptoms of food poisoning. Many people were passing out due to the lack of energy. The fact that we only have one make-shift toilet on board made it more difficult.

"No medicine and no emergency assistance, on top of the same food continually … did not make the situation better."

Kuhendrarajah said there hadn't been any actual threats to cut off electricity but the Indonesian authorities "know that if they do not supply engine oil, or diesel for the engine, which is currently supplying the power, we would be in a very desperate situation. Some of the refugees may consider getting off the boat, as they have children.

"The fact that we have no way of preparing hot water has brought severe difficulties for the parents of children who take formula."

The Indonesian authorities are trying to isolate the refugees. Kuhendrarajah said media access to the boat had been cut off and "the port has become a restricted area, only accessible if permission is granted by the foreign minister".

Kuhendrarajah said that the asylum seekers remaining on the boat "have not seen any member or representative of the UN [Human Rights Commission — UNHCR]. The nine people who have voluntarily gotten off the boat are currently kept in detention in a place called 'Bogor'.

"They have been contacting us and have only mentioned being interviewed by immigration and Interpol."

He said 109 of the asylum seekers on board had previously "been determined to be genuine refugees and 35 have been through the process, but are still waiting for the final decision by the refugee board. These people came from Malaysia, and a few of them have been in the UNHCR system for up to seven years, waiting for re-settlement.

"As the fear of deportation was persistent for people who overstay [in Malaysia], I guess that's what made them get on the boat."

"As far as we are concerned we will never be safe from the threat of deportation, as Indonesia is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention. Hence the fear of deportation has always threatened our lives."

None of the Tamils on the boat wanted to go back to Sri Lanka. They have their "nightmares relived over and over again. Abductions and disappearances, followed by execution-style murders, take place in the concentration camps", he said. "For three decades, my people have been under heavy fire. They were civilians caught up in the middle of a civil war.

"Carrying their children and whatever belongings they can carry, they were forced to flee from one village to another. Tamil people living in the northeast have no interest in building their homes or furnishing them. They know they may have to once again leave everything behind and get as far away as possible for an airstrike that will happen in the next two minutes.

"I don't think they had the time to call any [removal] company."

The asylum seekers are determined to stay on the boat until Australia accepts them as refugees, Kuhendrarajah said. But "the determination is deteriorating because of the living conditions. I think it can be built up again with … visits by foreigners or even the Red Cross." He said the nine men who left the ship, needed to because of medical concerns.

When asked what support they needed, Kuhendrarajah said they "need more durable tarpaulins, engine oil, diesel and petrol for the generators. We also require either gas or kerosene or another form of making hot water.

"We do have a gas stove and a kerosene stove as well but right now it's useless. Using kettles drains a lot from the engine."

Kuhendrarajah wanted GLW to pass on a message to supporters in Australia: "We thank you for your interest in us as we need all the support we can get. I don't think we would have lasted so long without the support of Aussies with a heart towards mankind.

"As for the ones who don't have that heart, we pray for them, and ask people to educate them and open their eyes to see the truth behind the reasons refugees flee their countries. We are not economic refugees. They come empty handed hoping for open arms. All we got was closed doors and that's what saddens us the most."

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