Further news on the 78 Tamil asylum seekers picked up by the Australian Navy 8 days ago indicates that the adult males have given up on their hunger strike* after two days and that the MV Oceanic Viking is due to dock in port at the Indonesian island of Bintan later today. It is not known exactly why the hunger strike started on Saturday as, unlike the previous Tamil 'boat people', they have been kept out of contact with the mainstream media.
The Indonesian authorities have already stated that they are prepared to use force to remove the Tamils from the Oceanic Viking and prevent the type of stand-off that happened in Merak harbour, but after the past few weeks of savaging in the media, this threat somewhat spooked the already shell-shocked Australian government, and Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith was trotted out in front of the cameras to say that he's confident Indonesian authority won't in fact be forcibly removing the asylum seekers after all.
At the same time, the Australian-funded detention centre at Tanjung Pinang where the Tamils are due to be taken has itself hit the news as an Australian TV channel has obtained police video footage of the injuries suffered by Afghan Hazara detainees at the camp. The injuries were apparently caused by beatings handed out by the detention centre guards and by immigration officials. [Audio]
Conditions are said to be harsh at the 600-capacity centre. Reports have emerged that detainees are regularly beaten and robbed by guards, and forced to sleep 20 to a room. One refugee advocate, Jessie Taylor, who visited several detention centres across Indonesia in July, is quoted in one of the news reports as saying: "Some of the places are appalling and could only be described as high-security Third World prisons. The sanitation and hygiene is often disgusting. There are steel bars and cells are overcrowded … The guards have attitudes ranging from apathetic to brutal. Indonesia has no qualms about not having any obligations to refugees."
Seemingly in response to the latest round of boat interceptions, the Indonesian Navy plans to deter asylum seekers' boat from entering Indonesian waters. "Our navy will conduct a prevention for the illegal migrants to enter our territory," Indonesian Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro claimed yesterday. "Generally, these people aims at better life, but we need to find out the possibility of other purposes." (Maybe something got lost in the translation?)
Time will tell if the Indonesian military are willing to go to the lengths of the Thai military in repelling migrants when it was revealed that thousands of Bangladeshis and Rohingyas** had been rounded up by the Thai army after arriving on the Thai mainland, or had been intercepted by the Thai Navy on board rickety boats coming from Bangladesh. Most ended up on Koh Sai Daen, a remote island in the Andaman Sea, where they survived on banana leaves and handfuls of rice while being regularly abused by armed guards.
According to two survivors who made it to the Indian Anadaman Islands, they and about 500 others were rounded up at night and forced into four rickety boats with no motors, many with their hands tied behind their backs. A navy ship then towed them out into the Indian Ocean and abandoned them after a day's sailing with only a 25kg bag of rice and a few containers of drinking water in each boat. After 13 days at sea the Indian coast guard rescued 107 survivors near the Andaman Islands. Others are believed to have not been so lucky, with at least 400 other migrants unaccounted for.
Other Australian related news has the Australian Human Rights Commissioner Catherine Branson calling for the Christmas Island detention facilities to be closed. She claimed that the 2005 Howard government law authorising the detention of 'boat people' on Pacific islands as creating two classes of asylum seekers. ''Asylum seekers should not be penalised because of their method of arrival,'' Ms Branson said. ''The excision and offshore processing regime establishes a two-tiered system.'' She also expressed concern about the detention of children, saying that the 2005 law expressly stated that children were supposed to be detained only as a last resort.
* At least six Sri Lankan refugees, including one woman, have also been on hunger strike for the past seven days in a Malaysian detention centre, demanding that they be allowed to meet officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The six detainees are amongst 108 Sri Lankans currently in the camp located in Malaysia's southern state of Johor after they were detained at a hotel last month for not having valid travel documents. The six claim they were given documents from the UNHCR granting them refugee status.
** Members of a Muslim ethnic group that fled to Bangladesh to escape persecution in Myanmar.