On January 26, three refugee advocates — Sydney-based Tamil community activist Sara Nathan, Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne, and Jessica Chandrashekar from the Canadian Humanitarian Appeal for Relief of Tamils — were arrested in Merak, Indonesia.
They had planned to take humanitarian aid to the 240 Tamil refugees stranded since their boat was intercepted by the Indonesian Navy at the request of the Australian government in October 2009, refugee advocate Ian Rintoul told ABC news on January 28.
Rintoul told the ABC that police questioned the women about humanitarian visa forms that he and Nathan had tried to distribute to the refugees last December. They had taken the forms after being told by the Australian foreign affairs department that these would be helpful for the refugees.
However, Indonesian authorities were suspicious about the forms. He said the Indonesian government was expecting Australia to take more responsibility for the refugees.
"Thankfully we've seen a little bit of a shift in that both Brendan O'Connor, the Home Affairs Minister, and Chris Evans, the Immigration Minister, have said that Australia will play a role resettling the Merak people after the UNHCR processing", he said.
The January 28 Jakarta Post reported that police in Merak had charged the three with people smuggling. All three were deported from Indonesia on the night of January 29. Back in Sydney, Nathan told Green Left Weekly that they were detained for questioning, for a total of 17 hours, but were not arrested or charged with any crime.
"We were detained for questioning for 11 hours the first time, then for six hours, but were only actually questioned for an hour each time … It was inconvenient but we were not held in the cells overnight."
While they were detained, police took their mobile phones — "which caused some stress to our families who couldn't contact us" — and copied the SIM cards.
She said that initially she was accused of being the wife of a known "people smuggler", because she happens to share a surname with one. Nathan is a very common Tamil surname. Sara Nathan's husband has a different surname and after she had her marriage certificate faxed from Australia, police changed their line of questioning to the distribution of humanitarian visa forms.
While the three had not been distributing the forms, it would not have been a crime if they had. "This form is not a secret. It's available online", Nathan said.
Police then accused the three of entering the exclusion zone around the refugees' boat in Merak. Nathan denied this. "We were able to show photos to prove how far away we were", she said.
Spokesperson for the stranded refugees, Sanjeev "Alex" Kuhendrarajah, backed this up. Speaking by phone from the boat, he told GLW the activists were nowhere near the boat. He felt the Indonesian authorities were trying to prove a point to Australian refugee advocates.
"If they were concerned about people coming too close to the boat, why didn't they arrest many of the locals and fishermen who come close by and stare at us?"
He added that conditions aboard the boat have not improved. "There is only one toilet on the boat, and it is an outrage that one woman is about to give birth in these appalling conditions."
Nathan was worried that the harassment of foreign refugee rights advocates (who, unlike the refugees, have the protection of their embassies) by Indonesian authorities was further intimidating the refugees. She said Rintoul was harassed by security officers in Jakarta in December.
She said that Indonesia was sending a message to Australia about the government's "Indonesian solution".
"They do not want Australia outsourcing the warehousing of refugees to Indonesia. I hope the Australian government gets the message."
To see and talk to the 254 Tamil refugees aboard the boat in Merak, go to www.ustream.tv/channel/asylum254.