Monday, November 16, 2009

Sri Lanka Asylum Seekers' Fate Still Uncertain by Fardah

    Jakarta, Nov. 16, 2009 (ANTARA) - At the beginning it was thought that the 'Indonesian solution' would work well but the problem of Sri Lanka asylum seekers aboard the Australian ship MV Oceanic Viking has now led to a standoff not easy to solve.
        On October 18, 2009, the MV Oceanic Viking had picked up 78 Sri Lanka asylum seekers, after they had sent out a distress signal in what Australia called an 'Indonesian search and rescue zone'. But, an Indonesian military officer said they were rescued in waters near Australia's Christmas Island.
        "I wonder why the vessel which intercepted the asylum seekers near Christmas Island, carried them into Indonesian waters," Indonesian military spokesman, Air Vice Marshall Sagom Tamboen, said as quoted by the Jakarta Globe recently.
        "[The refugees] only want asylum in Australia. It's as if [the Australian government] are trying to shift responsibility to other countries," he said.
        After reportedly receiving 'the green light' from Indonesian authorities, the Oceanic Viking with 78 Sri Lanka refugees aboard, cast anchor in waters near Cempedak Island, Bintan District, Riau Islands Province, Sumatra, on October 26, 2009. Austrlian authorities had hoped the asylum seekers could then be transferred to an immigration detention center in Tanjungpinang - a way out which people in Australia promptly n referred to as the 'Indonesian solution'.
        But, the Sri Lanka asylum seekers have refused to leave the Australian ship and insisted they should be taken to Australia. They threatened suicide if forced to disembark in Indonesia.
        As the standoff continued, the Indonesian authorities allowed the Australian ship to stay in Sumatran waters until November 6, and later it was extended to November 13, 2009.

        "Up to now the (Oceanic Viking) ship is still being guarded by the Indonesian navy. If not extended, the Oceanic Viking should have left Indonesia since yesterday," an anonymous source told ANTARA in Tanjung Pinang on Saturday (Nov. 14).

        Last Friday (Nov. 13), 22 refugees were finally willing to leave the boat and be transferred by Mutiara Emas ferry to Tanjungpinang where they would accommodated at an immigration detention center after being persuaded that they might be granted refugee status after getting refugee status letters from UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) officers in Riau Islands Province.

        The 22 asylum seekers were given a promise that they would be able to stay in Australia if they got letters confirming that they were refugees. They were told that they would be taken to Australia after staying at the immigration detention center for a month.

        The Tanjungpinang immigration detention center has been in operation since April 23, 2009. The detention center, built with financial assistance from the Australian government, is currently accommodating 82 refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

        "The Australian government has promised to let us stay there (in Australia)," one of the 22 all-male Sri Lanka refugees, said at the Tanjungpinang immigration detention center, told ANTARA.

        Sujatmiko Sujatmiko, the Indonesian foreign ministry's Director of Diplomatic Security, said in Tanjungpinang on Saturday (Nov. 14) the refugee status letters would be processed by UNHCR officers. "The Australian government has promised to accept the Sri Lanka immigrants," he said.

        Indonesian Vice Foreign Minister Triyono Wibowo also confirmed in Tanjungpinang, Saturday (Nov. 14), that the Australian government had pledged to receive them.

        Immigrants who had refugee documents would stay in Australia after being held at the immigration detention center in Riau Island, he said.

        "The documents will be arranged by the UNHCR. The Australian government had promised to accept them," he said.

        The Indonesian government has given 22 Sri Lankan immigrants three months at the most to stay at an immigration detention center in Riau, Wibowo said after meeting with representatives of the law and human rights office and Riau Island provincial administration, discussing the fate of the foreign refugees.

        "Australia is still trying to persuade them to stay in Indonesia," he said referring to the remaining 56 immigrants from Sri Lanka still staying aboard the Oceanic Viking.

        But, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told reporters in Singapore, last Saturday (Nov. 14) that asylum seekers still aboard the Oceanic Viking would not be treated any differently from the few who have left the vessel after a month-long impasse.

        He denied the 22 Tamils who left the boat on Friday to go to Indonesia's Tanjung Pinang detention center would be given automatic passage to Australia if they were found to be refugees.

        "My understanding is there is no difference between those who are currently on the vessel and those who have disembarked the vessel," Rudd told reporters in Singapore.

        "The underpinning assumption ... is that there is some special arrangement. My advice is there is not," Rudd said as reported by Australian News Agency AAP.

        Meanwhile, the Indonesian vice minister of foreign affairs said said the Indonesian government had given a tolerance to show its concern over the problem, adding that after the deadline was reached the immigrants must leave the country.

        He said Indonesia did not have the obligation to take care of the illegal immigrants.

        "Actually the problem should have been dealt with jointly by the governments of their country of origin, of the transit country and the country of destination. They must not leave it to the Indonesian and Australian governments only," he said.

        The Indonesian government had earlier also done a favor to Australia regarding asylum seekers going to Australia. On October 11, 2009, Indonesia's Navy intercepted a boat with about 255 Sri Lankans aboard and took them to Merak harbor, western Java, after receiving information from Australia.

        Alex, a spokesman of the 255 Sri Lankans, said they might face the death penalty if they return to Sri Lanka, but they did not want to live in Indonesia because "it already has many problems related to poverty and natural disasters.

        Indonesia is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, meaning asylum seekers there are processed by the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration and forced to wait - most of them for many years - to be resettled in a third country.

        The Australian government had so far been receiving at least 13,500 refugees per year. Over 30 boats have arrived in Australian waters this year and the Christmas Island detention center is almost full.

        The same condition is also applied in the Indonesian immigration detention centers in several provinces, which are packed with asylum seekers particularly those from Afghanistan, including women and children, wanting to go to Australia, but eventually ending up in Indonesian jails. ***3*** (F001/A/HAJM/13:40/A/O001) (T.F001/A/F001/A/O001) 16-11-2009

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