Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Eyewitness report from refugee boat in Merak



Anthony Main - On Friday November 20th I had the opportunity to visit the Tamil refugees in Merak. Prior to my visit I had been in regular phone contact with the refugees but to see the deplorable conditions on the boat first hand was indeed a shock.

The port has been in lock down for more than a week, even the media have been denied access. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) have also withdrawn their services. Clearly there is a joint attempt by the Australian and Indonesian governments to deny these people basic necessities in the hope that it will wear them down and force them off the ship.

I was able to visit the boat as part of a delegation that included members of the Confederation Congress of Indonesian Union Alliance (KASBI), the Working Peoples Association (PRP) and a human rights lawyer. We were also accompanied by an official from the Indonesian Human Rights Commission.

These asylum seekers are all from the north and east of Sri Lanka. They include children, pregnant women and the elderly. All have been affected by the brutal war and have experienced their own hardships as a result of the oppression of the Tamil minority. As one women told me “We all have our own individual horror stories”.

On October 11th, on route to Australia, their 30 metre boat was intercepted by the Indonesian navy. It has been no secret that the Australian government pressured the Indonesian authorities to act before the boat made it into Australian waters. One man commented that “Kevin Rudd calls this the Indonesian solution, how can it be a solution if we are facing deportation or jail?”

As soon as we arrived at the boat people started to come out one by one. This old wooden ship is built to carry about 40 – 50 people, but more than 250 are crammed onto it. The first people to approach me were children. A girl of about 7 years old told me that she had written a letter to the Australian authorities. It was written in Tamil but she asked me if I could get it translated and show it to them. Several other children had also written letters, one of which was in English. (See text below)

After being in isolation for more than a week it was not surprising that the people on board the boat were desperate to hear news and discuss the dispute. One man, Nimal, started asking me some questions about the Australian Governments attitude to asylum seekers. Within seconds I was surrounded by dozens of people who all wanted know why Rudd would not allow them safe passage to Australia.

After a brief discussion with the refugees’ spokespeople Alex and Kumar, I was taken on board the boat. The tour of the boat took some time because in every corner of the vessel I met with people who wanted to tell me their stories. One of the first families I met had with them a baby who was only 6 months old. The father said to me “We have been here 50 days now. This child has spent more than one quarter of her life in these terrible conditions”.

Most of the people on the boat are sick in some way. Many have diarrhoea and some have Malaria. There are also 15 diabetics on board who have had no access to insulin for weeks. On several occasions people have needed urgent medical assistance which has been denied by the Indonesian authorities. There is also only one toilet on the boat, meaning people have to line up at all times of the day.

The weather in Merak is dreadful. The rainy season has begun, which means it is wet, windy and humid. The boat is covered by tarpaulins but in many areas these covers are torn and when the rain is heavy the decks get covered in water. This means people are sleeping in wet areas, often without enough clothes and blankets to keep them warm.

The Indonesian Navy keeps a close eye on the ship and they are responsible for delivering food and water several times a day. The food is of very poor quality and many say it is making them sick. They have no hot water and the fresh water they have runs out before the end of the day.

While the conditions are horrendous, most people were less interested in complaining and more interested in discussing the politics of the dispute. After being shown around the boat, as many people as could fit sat down on the main deck where we conducted a meeting. We discussed many issues including the political situation in Sri Lanka, the attitude of ordinary people in Australia to refugees and how to best build support for their struggle.

I started by telling them that while there are polarised views in Australia about refugees, there are many people who are supporting them. As well as the Socialist Party there are many progressive groups in the region who are campaigning for their rights. I reported about actions and protests that had already taken place and those that are planned in the next few weeks. I also told them about support that had come from trade unions in both Australia and Indonesia.

A few days prior to my visit it was reported that the Indonesian government was looking to deport the refugees back to Sri Lanka. But the day before my visit the Sydney Morning Herald was reporting that the Indonesian government had changed their mind and they would now allow them to be processed by the United Nations. Unfortunately no one on board had been made aware of this. Even if it were true it would not guarantee them safe passage to Australia.

All on the boat were fully aware of the deal that the Rudd government had done with another group of Tamil refugees who were on board the Oceanic Viking. While the situation for the refugees in Merak is slightly different, because they are not on an Australian vessel and were not intercepted by the Australian Navy, they are adamant that they should be afforded, at the very least, the same treatment.

“We are all fleeing the same persecution” one man said “We are all refugees, we should all be treated equally”. Another man said “We believe Kevin Rudd has both a legal and a moral obligation to take us. He is a signatory to the UN refugee convention. Indonesia is not. If he believes in human rights how could he possibly let us go to an Indonesian detention centre?”

“We are resilient people, we have escaped war, we have lived in camps. All we are asking is that we are treated as human beings. If we go back to Sri Lanka we will not be treated as humans. We will go to jail, be killed or just disappear” he said.

Only a few hours after I left the ship one of the refugees sent me a text message saying that they had just received news that a relative of one of the asylum seekers had been kidnapped by the Sri Lankan Army. A 19 year old man was pushed into a white van and has not been seen for several days. It is quite possible that, along with hundreds of others, he will never be seen again.

This is the reality of life for Tamils in Sri Lanaka. But despite their concern about the future, the one thread that ran through all of the discussions was that they are prepared to stay on the boat as long as it takes. This brave stance should be acknowledged by all workers and poor people in the region. As one man said to me as I was leaving “We are just ordinary people, not different to people in Australia. We did not start the war, we are the victims. All we are asking for is support.”

The Socialist Party and our sister parties in the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) will do all we can to build support for this group of Tamil refugees and to campaign for the rights of all workers and oppressed people in Sri Lanka.

Socialist Party National Organiser Anthony Main is currently in Indonesia. On Friday he visited the 254 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees currently moored at the port in Merak.

© Tamil Solidarity

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1 comment:

teresafu said...

All this time since this bloody war started we have seen such horrendous images, after seeing them I found hard to sleep, to come to understand how we are being fooled by the international community (I mean political community, all of them, the ones who act and the ones who keep silence).

My heart gets some confort when I read about news where I can see some people manage the best and they can to help the Tamil people, to let us know the reality (which in essence we will never be able to reach). In this case, I am grateful to Anthony Main.

I am aware all this bloody stuff is part of the game some countries are playing, and I am aware up to some extent we cannot avoid it (it doesn't mean we have to accept it).

But even so, I don't think never in history happened something like this with a minority (not at this number at least), under our very own eyes they are being massacrated, exterminated, and the "big ones" are helping to do it keeping silent. And don't put me the example of the Jews because actually they are not a good example for anything because they are also masters about extermination (they have had a good master...).

All the silence kept about the genocide of Tamil is something horrendous, every night during the conflict I put on the TV I never saw a fair new, all of them were in support of the stinky Sri Lankan government and the BBC, CNN, France24 were always silent, just Al Jazeera spoke about it in some extent but counted times and controlling what they say. I had to check on the internet to know about what was going on.

Until the very end I was confident there would be some common sense and the internation community would act but they let the Tamil people on their own. Imagine your little child in front of a soldier who is beating him or raping him/her and you are just looking at it, if you let them to do it you are encouraging them to do it. All and every single person representing a government, the ones who take decisions in every government are guilty of all these atrocities against Tamils, perhaps in this world you won't pay for it, but you will somehow pay, and I wish with all my heart you pay for it.

If we keep silent we are saying all this was all right, and it is not. I cannot do too much (I really wish I could). I am telling all people I know, my family who is not aware of anything of this, my children, we cannot forget all this innocent people who died "for international interests". And I praise all the people who honestly help the best they can to the ones who cannot defend themselves.

World could be some other way, for sure it could be... and the hope is that there will always be good people, worthy people to confide in.

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