The tragic fate of the Merak Tamils

Merak refugee Bahirathan (pictured) drowned on June 8 while attempting to reach Australia. He is seen here holding the Australia

Green Left Weekly’s Niko Leka spoke to refugee advocate Saradha Nathan. Last year, Nathan travelled to Indonesia with other refugee advocates, to inspect conditions in Australian-funded detention centres there and take aid and visa application forms to the Tamils stranded on the boat at Merak.

She spoke about the fate of those refugees, some of who are now in detention, and some who recently tried again to come to Australia — with fatal consequences.

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On June 7, a boat ferrying asylum seekers to a larger boat bound for Australia capsized. Seven Tamils died after being in the water for almost 12 hours. Two survived.

Two of those who died had been on the Jaya Lestari, the boat that was stranded in the Indonesian port of Merak for six months, after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called Indonesian authorities and asked them to “intercept” them en route to Australia.

The two from Merak who died were Bahirathan, 24, and Thileepkumar, 27. Both had United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cards confirming they were genuine refugees.

Thileepkumar escaped from Merak in mid-December.

Bahirathan had been kept in an immigration detention centre in Kuningan since December 20, when he left the boat to get cream for a rash. He had completed an Australian Offshore Humanitarian Visa application, which refugee advocate Ian Rintoul lodged with the Australian embassy in December.

Both these men were genuine, recognised refugees, and yet they lost their lives making another desperate attempt to reach safety.

How are the other asylum seekers moved from the Jaya Lestari faring in the Tanjung Pinang Detention Centre in Indonesia?

They have already been through awful things. They’ve seen bombing, killing and raping in Sri Lanka. They had nearly made it to safety; hope was within reach. Their boat was only 45 nautical miles from Australia when Rudd made the phone call to Indonesia. If the call was not made, they would have reached Australia and now would be alive. Rudd should take responsibility to resettle refugees before more people die.

At least when they were on the boat, they could walk around the port and communicate with the world. At the detention centre, their phones have been taken. They can’t communicate with anybody. About half of the people from the boat have escaped, including some from the detention centre.

There are about 130 people behind bars there, including 15 children. Women and children have been separated from their husbands and fathers. There are two toddlers with UNHCR cards behind bars.

One of the men attempted suicide on arrival. Others have been beaten up by guards. We’ve heard that the guards use Taser guns on them. People are isolated in different areas of the centre. One of the mothers has had a breakdown and is on medication. This is not surprising given all she’s been through.

How much can a human being take?

Now they’re in detention, they could wait for years before Australia accepts them. Even if it does, they’re likely to stay in detention for a long time.

What about the ones who took the Australian Humanitarian Visa application forms?

Some of them have been punished for trying to do the right thing. It was actually a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) officer who suggested we take the applications forms with us when we visited Merak in December.

Yet Australia did nothing for the people who lodged those forms with the Australian embassy. Instead they were put into Indonesian jails and stayed there. And we were accused of being “people smuggler”!

What do you think about the Labor government’s visa freeze against refugee applications from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan?

The visa “freeze” is pure hypocrisy. People who are offshore, in Indonesia or Malaysia are allowed to apply for a visa, but people in Australia can’t. If the situation has improved in Sri Lanka or Afghanistan, why are we processing people who are offshore? Is it just to play politics?

Even more hypocritical is that DFAT advises Australians not to travel to the north of Sri Lanka, saying it’s too violent and not safe. Yet apparently it’s okay for Sri Lankans to be forced to live and suffer there. Is an Australian life worth more than a Sri Lankan life?

The visa freeze isn’t going to stop the boats from Sri Lanka. Even though the war is over, human rights violations continue.

Tamil refugees end up in an Indonesian or Malaysian jail, they’re locked up 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If they want freedom, they have no option but to come to Australia.

Rudd himself has acknowledged that they are coming because of “push” factors.

The government has re-opened Curtin detention centre in remote Western Australia, and the Greens fear it may consider re-opening others such as Baxter in South Australia. What impact will this have?

Isolating these people is prolonging and intensifying their agony. If they’re in Villawood detention centre in Sydney, people from the Tamil community can at least visit them.

Visitors can bring the refugees curries and talk to them in their own language. They don’t feel like they’re in an alien country. They can talk about their issues.

Why put them in remote desert locations, where no one can visit them or speak their language? They are not criminals.

Although they are still being processed, it’s widely recognised that about 90% of applications are found to be genuine refugees.

Mandatory detention costs Australian taxpayers a huge amount. It would cost a fraction of that money to let them live in the community.

For example, the families who were moved from the Christmas Island detention centre to Darwin are overwhelmingly grateful — because they feel safe now.

The fathers can’t work, and the kids haven’t been to school since leaving Christmas Island, but they say at least they know they won’t be bombed, shot or raped.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott proposes to re-introduce Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs). Will that work to deter refugees?

TPVs won’t stop them. They will still come — three years of safety is better than none.

The TPV scheme sets people up for failure. Living on a TPV, it is hard to get a job or to start a business. Who will give you a job or lend you money for such a short time? And also, it takes time to learn the language and to settle into our culture.

One refugee told me it took him three years to get established, start a business and sponsor his wife to come here. He would not have been able to do that on a TPV.

The only thing that would stop the boats would be if Australia put its foot down and demanded that the Sri Lankan government ensure human rights were upheld. We are a major trading partner with Sri Lanka. We should use our influence and show leadership.