Over April 19-20, Indonesian police and naval officers forced almost 150 Tamils onto buses at Port Merak and took them to the Tanjung Pinang detention centre. For seven months, more than 250 Tamils had withstood appalling conditions aboard a squalid boat at the West Java port.
Their hope was for refugee status in Australia. Their fear was of being locked up in Indonesian detention centres or deported back to Sri Lanka.
But the Australian federal government’s ruthless and legally dubious decision to suspend processing claims of refugees arriving from Sri Lanka for three months (and those of refugees from Afghanistan for six months) brought the stand-off to an end.
Tamil activist Sara Nathan told Green Left Weekly the Tamils received a letter from the Australian government telling them of the decision. Since the April 9 decision, Indonesian officials had been pressuring the Tamils to leave the boat, saying they would be held in undisclosed “accommodation” for processing.
Nathan said that when the buses arrived on April 19, police told the Tamils they could get off the boat or be arrested and dragged off.
“Some were dragged, but most decided they did not want violence”, she said. “They weren't told where they were going, and they didn't know how long before their claims would be assessed.”
ABC Online reported on April 8 that no one from the Australian embassy had visited West Java, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade released only a statement saying the matter was “Indonesia’s responsibility”.
Nathan told Aljazeera.net that legal aid lawyers were not allowed to supervise the disembarkation or take part in any discussions with the Tamils.
“It is of concern that human rights have been violated in Indonesia and we’re holding Australia responsible because they put them in that situation knowing Indonesia’s record on human rights and Indonesia’s treatment of refugees”, she said.
Now the refugees are in a cramped prison, waiting for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to arrange their resettlement. Australia continues to deny any assistance or responsibility.
Nathan told GLW conditions were appalling.
“More than 40 people are kept in a cell, with only 2.75 square metres of space each”, she said. “They are being kept in the cells 24 hours a day. They’re not allowed out at all. Australia paid $30 million over three years to refurbish Tanjung Pinang, so this illegal facility is basically funded by us.
“It’s illegal to keep people locked up like that.”
She said Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had put them there because of his request in October for the Indonesian navy to apprehend the Jaya Lestari, the cargo vessel that originally carried more than 254 Tamils. “And Australia paid for their transport to Tanjung Pinang, so they cannot say it is not our problem”, she said.
Many of the Tamils on board the Jaya Lestari when it was intercepted in October had already escaped before Indonesia acted. About 30 fled after the visa freeze was announced. Some have made it to Christmas Island, including nine-year-old Brindha and about 40 others who arrived at Christmas Island on March 19.
The immigration department said their claims would not be affected by the three-month suspension.
But tensions at the Christmas Island detention centre are escalating as well. The suspension means fears of rejection are growing for people who have already waited too long. The April 29 Sydney Morning Herald said 25 refugees had staged a protest inside the facility.
Immigration minister Chris Evans was dismissive, denying the UN refugee convention to justify the illegal visa freeze. He said more refugees were likely to be refused protection.
On April 23, while visiting Christmas Island, Evans said: “I think the important point to make is that because a country is subject to civil disorder and great difficulty doesn’t mean that everyone from that country is a refugee.
“I think people comment on the situation in Afghanistan and say it is still fairly unsafe in certain regions, but that is not a convention-related reason for someone to be found a refugee.”
But desperate protests from asylum seekers reveal the lies of the federal government and the Liberal opposition. Eleven Tamils went on hunger strike after their claims were rejected and were taken to Villawood detention centre in Sydney.
Legal challenges are also being launched against Labor’s treatment of refugees.
The Australian offshore processing system detains refugees, assesses their claims and accepts or deports them without recourse to Australian courts. The April 23 Age reported that the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre (RILC) in Melbourne had initiated legal action on behalf of eight refugees from Sri Lanka who have had their claims rejected.
RILC co-ordinator David Manne told the Age: “We will challenge the lawfulness of the decisions under the offshore processing regime on the basis that the decisions are unfair and unlawful. We will be issuing proceedings very shortly, but in the meantime we have asked that no steps be taken to remove them from Australia.”
The government is reopening mothballed detention centres on Australia’s mainland, including the notorious Curtin, which Western Australia’s former inspector of custodial services Richard Harding described as “a human rights abuse” and a “gulag”.
Rudd is also introducing “largely unscrutinised” changes to Australia's “people smuggling” laws, the SMH said on April 27. The laws will change the definition of “people smuggling” so that anyone sending money to people overseas who later use it to pay so-called people smugglers could face a maximum penalty of 10 years’ jail.
Nathan said none the measures the government is taking will work.
“The only way to stop people smuggling is to take more than the 39 refugees we accepted from Indonesia last year”, she said. “If we took 1000 asylum seekers from Indonesia, for example, people would not have to sell their ancestral home or risk their lives to come by boat.”
[The Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney has created an account for the Merak Tamil asylum seekers’ legal fund. Please email details to firstname.lastname@example.org (date, time, name, bank, method etc) of transaction when you deposit money in account. The account is Refugee Contingency Fund, BSB 062212, account number 10373429.
To send money from outside Australia, use Swiftcode CTBAAU2S.]