Merak Tamils treated 'like animals'

March 6, 2010

Manju, one of the 254 Tamil refugees aboard the Jaya Lestari in Merak, Indonesia, is due to have her baby on 5 April.

She has become infected with chicken pox, Saradha Nathan, Australian refugee advocate, told Green Left Weekly. She added that Manju had not received any of the maternity dresses, folic acid or vitamin supplements purchased with funds raised by Australian supporters. They were all confiscated by local immigration officials.

The International Organisation for Migration receives $12 million a year from Australia to help refugees with food, medicines, shelter and clothes. People on the Jaya Lestari told Nathan that IOM often delays or denies medical care. This has already resulted in the death of one asylum seeker — Jacob Christin.

Brindha, a nine-year-old girl on board the boat, told GLW the IOM treated the refugees "like animals". She said the food was highly spiced and oily, making many of the children sick.

Nathan asked IOM in December and again in January to supply portable toilets, showers and also more palatable food. But after 150 days, there have been no improvements for those on board.

Nathan said Merak authorities prevented the media, clergy and refugee advocates from contacting those on the Jaya Lestari. They insist the refugees disembark, and be subject to Indonesian processing, before allowing them access to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than half the refugees already have UNHCR refugee cards from Malaysia, but are expected to go through the process again.

Some refugees were lured ashore by promises they would not be held behind bars. After two weeks in a hostel, they are now kept in a 15 metre-square cell, Nathan said. They have one small window. They stand, walk, eat, toilet and sleep in the cell. They are not allowed out.

After three months, they were seen by Indonesian, and later by UNHCR officers. Their personal details were then passed back to Sri Lanka, and Sri Lankan naval officers were granted access to interrogate and intimidate them.

Others who've left the boat to get supplies have been arrested and detained. It is likely they too will be exposed to the persecutors they are fleeing.

Indonesian police are now searching for Sanjeev "Alex" Kuhendrarajah, who has left the boat. Kuhendrarajah was the main spokesperson for the Tamil refugees.

According to the March I Sydney Morning Herald, Nathan said Kuhendrarajah left because he felt unsafe.

"'The Indonesian government had a thing against him so he didn't think it was safe for him there", she said.
"He also believed they incorrectly believed he was forcing the people on the boat to stay there. They can now see it is not him but [the wish of] all people."

Nathan is urging Denis Nihill, IOM chief of mission, to provide immediate maternity care for Manju and access to nutritional food and accommodation for the 31 children on the boat.

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