Merak refugees' conditions worsen

Saturday, February 27, 2010 - 11:00

The Australian government continues to ignore the almost 250 Tamil refugees holding out on a boat in the port of Merak, West Java. But the conditions onboard grow more severe each day.

Peter Woolcott, Australia's "ambassador on people smuggling issues" visited Indonesia over February 4-5. He did not make any assurances about the safety of the Tamils, but simply told them to "get off the boat".

He told ABC Radio Australia on February 12: "It is for the Indonesian authorities to manage."

Unlike Australia, Indonesia is not a signatory to the United Nations refugee rights convention, and has a poor track record for detention and deportation of refugees.

The refugees are stranded in Merak because Prime Minister Kevin Rudd demanded Indonesia seize the fishing boat as it was travelling toward Australia on October 15. The February 10 West Australian reported Rudd said Australia may "be forced" to help resettle the asylum seekers.

Yet the government has moved no further.

On the boat, a pregnant woman is due to deliver on March 5. As yet, no medical assistance has been provided and Indonesian authorities have made no promise to ensure she is able to deliver safely.

On February 14, activists from Tamil rights group Canadian HART said the baby was in breech position, an extreme complication in any pregnancy. It also said there was a possible outbreak of chicken pox onboard.

A statement released by the Working People's Association in Indonesia and the Sydney-based Refugee Action Coalition said the refugees were still being denied basic necessities.

It said: "The International Organisation of Migration (IOM) funded by Australia to provide welfare assistance for asylum seekers has used its control over food, and medicine and other welfare to deprive the refugees of basic needs such as medicine, tarpaulins, and toilets to try to force the people off the boat."

People that have left the boat have been locked up in Indonesia's appalling detention centres.

The statement outlined the conditions the refugees want assured by the Indonesian government, and made demands for immediate relief after an ordeal of more than four months.

It said the Australian government must commit to accepting and resettling all of the Tamil asylum seekers. "The Australian government must move beyond the vague statements that it will play a role in resettlement, to stating clearly the conditions and timeline for resettlement."

The Tamils themselves said they should be treated similarly to the 78 Tamil refugees that disembarked Australian customs vessel the Oceanic Viking in November because the Australian government promised to resettle them within two months.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported on February 25 that Tamil and Afghan asylum seekers inside the Tanjung Pinang detention centre had begun a hunger strike with the same demand.
"We have requested to be released from here or resettled in a third country", one hunger striker said. "But no one has replied yet. Some of us are in a serious condition."
On March 10, the Tamils will have been stranded at Merak for 150 days. Rallies will be held around Australia that day in support the Tamils and to demand the Australian government offer them rapid resettlement.

From GLW issue 828