Immediate action needed to avoid humanitarian crisis of refugees in Merak

Immediate action to avoid humanitarian crisis: Australian government must follow words up with action

Ravie Kumar, speaking on behalf of the Tamil-speaking refugees on a boat in Merak harbour, Indonesia, has denied the allegation that the refugees are not wiling to cooperate with the Indonesian authorities.

The refugees have insisted that they are willing to cooperate but not on the basis of being held in a detention camp. Nobody could accept the conditions in these camps, where families are separated and refugees have been detained for up to ten years, never knowing when they will be freed.
The refugees also want UNHCR to process their claims for status as asylum seekers immediately as Indonesia is not a signatory of the UN refugee convention. This means that Indonesia does not have a legal obligation to grant the basic rights of the refugees. This is precisely why the refugees are insisting that the Australian government should not use Indonesia to deflect its obligations under this convention.
The refugees also request decent food and medical supplies. This has not been made available to them despite their appeals. The denial of these basic rights was exposed when 29 year old Mr Jacob Samuel Christian died on 23 December 2009 due to the negligence of the authorities as well as the inadequate food provision.

Dr Brian Senewiratne, a specialist physician with a specialism in gastroenterology and a campaigner for the rights of these refugees in Merak, stated that the patient had needed an immediate transfer to hospital which was fatally delayed. Dr Brian believed that Mr Christian’s life could have been saved had he received proper medical attention. He accused the Indonesian authorities and the Australian government of withholding the required care. Mr Jacob’s body has not yet been returned to his family. The conditions for those on the boat remain the same, putting more lives in danger.

On 15 December four others were arrested when they left the boat to seek medical treatment and other supplies. On 28 December 2009 a nine year old girl, Vinuja, was suffering from a severe stomach pain and fever. When medical supplies were sought for her and another woman, who had a swollen stomach, the guards refused and are reported to have said ‘come back when your body is cold and die on the ship’. When the refugees continued to beg and plea the guards took only the child, refusing to assist the sick woman or even to allow the child’s mother to accompany her sick daughter.

Only on 30 December when Dr Senewiratne diagnosed acute appendicitis over the phone from Brisbane, Australia and called the local hospital in Merak to arrange an ambulance was the sick woman given any medical attention and taken to hospital. The poor quality of the food and the absence of adequate medical support mean the refugees on the boat face serious health risks.

Activists from Australia visited Merak recently and reported on the horrific conditions on the boat. Madhuni and Saranathan faced difficulties when they attempted to bring resources to the refugees on the boat. They were unable to distribute visa application forms among those on the boat as they had intended. This restriction of the access to activists, media, legal support and anyone wishing to assist the refugees is totally unacceptable.

Since 11 October these refugees have been held on a tiny boat with unbearable conditions. The Australian and Indonesian governments have so far been extremely slow in responding the demands for asylum rights. Speaking to ABC News on Wednesday 30 December, Australian Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’ Connor stated that: “Australia will help resettle some of those on board the boat, but only after their asylum claims are processed by the UN refugee agency” and claimed that Australia has a fair off-shore humanitarian programme.

The refugees welcome this statement but there has been no evidence of an off-shore humanitarian programme when dealing with their case. In fact the Indonesian government, working closely with the Australian government, has denied UNHCR access to the boat. Australia’s so-called ‘Indonesian solution’ to control refugee intake has already called death and a humanitarian crisis.

Tamil Solidarity demands genuine action to resolve the refugees’ desperate situation without wasting a single day. UNHCR must immediately begin the claims process. If the Australian government is serious about a humanitarian solution then it must act immediately to resolve the crisis. It is absolutely disgraceful to knowingly keep these refugees under such harsh conditions. These refugees, who fled enormous repression under the brutal Sri Lankan regime, feel abandoned by the governments. Two months is already too long to wait. Not another day should be wasted.