Indonesian authorities give hope to Merak refugees, but demand they disembark

Press release 07/04/2001

For immediate release

On 06/04/10 Indonesian authorities, along with UNHCR senior officers, met the Tamil-speaking refugees on the boat in Merak and gave them five days to decide their future.

The authorities told the refugees that they will not put them in detention centres. Instead they will house them until their applications have been processed. They also told the refugees that UNHCR will be allowed to process the applications within 24 hours after they depart from the boat.

Kumar, one of the spokespersons for the refugees said: “The authorities seem to be genuine this time. However, judging from the past experience we still have doubts about how much we can trust what they are saying.” Kumar says that the refugees would be happy to take up this offer, if the authorities are serious about it. The authorities told them that they have negotiated with the Australian government and a few other governments regarding taking the refugees, if they are found to be genuine refugees by UNHCR.

These refugees have been in a small boat off the Merak port for the last six months, after they are intercepted on their journey to Australia by the Indonesian navy. This was done on the direct instruction of the Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd. The refugees are fleeing the horrible aftermath of the brutal war in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government, rated as one of the worst in the world for respected international human rights organisations, now could face a UN war crimes investigation.

 The refugees have so far refused to get off the boat, demanding that they should be guaranteed that their asylum claims should be processed by UNHCR and that they should have freedom of movement.

 The negligence of the Indonesian authorities has already cost the life of a 29 year-old man, Mr Jacob Christian. The conditions on the boat put his health at serious risk but he died when the authorities delayed taking him to hospital. Now the health of all the refugees is deteriorating on a daily basis. They are forced to eat disgusting and inadequate food. There are no proper facilities for cleaning and washing. Access to water is restricted. There is only one toilet. They are suffering from all sorts of stomach-related diseases. Skin conditions stop the children sleeping and rashes and disease spread quickly in the incredibly cramped conditions. 

 “The Australian government is evading its international responsibility by using Indonesia through this scheme, known as the ‘Indonesian solution’. UNHCR, instead of opposing this scheme, seems to be facilitating it. UNHCR doesn’t need any government’s permission to speak to the refugees, among whom quite a large number have UNHCR cards showing that they have been recognised as refugees. The hypocrisy of UNHCR, who continues to ignore these refugees, must be exposed” stated Sarah Sachs-Eldridge, a spokesperson for Tamil Solidarity, an organisation that has been campaigning on behalf of refugees in Merak from day one.

Manny Thain,  Tamil Solidarity national secretory added: “We hope that the authorities understand the difficulties the refugees are going through and respect their fundamental rights and allow them to start a decent life.”