A stand-off has developed between the 253 Sri Lankan migrants on board a cargo ship in Merak Harbour, West Java and the Indonesian authorities. The wooden vessel was intercepted by the Indonesian navy, after a direct plea from Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at the weekend, and has been in the port for the last 4 days. The migrants had been at sea for 13 days before being intercepted, many of them having paid $US15,000 after having been forced to wait in the Malaysian jungle several months before a people smuggling syndicate took their passports and promised to deliver them to Australia.
Now the Tamil asylum seekers are refusing to leave the vessel, fearing being returned to Sri Lanka where their lives are in danger. The 222 adults are currently on hunger strike, having previously threatened to blow up the boat using gas cylinders and to jump in the ocean to prevent the Indonesian military removing them from the boat. The 226 adults amongst the group have since gone on hunger strike and have unfurled large banner reading 'Life? Death? Hunger strike for international community' and 'We are Sri Lankan civilians. Plz save our life'. The Indonesian authorities want to move the migrants on to dry land, but as most Indonesian detention centres are too full, they may move the Tamils into empty local hotels.
A spokesman for the Tamils told the media, ''We may as well die here. We cannot go back to Sri Lanka,'' and said they would stay on the boat for months, if necessary. "If you come see the situation in Sri Lanka, where most Tamils live ... you can see it's a lot worse than living on this ship. So most of these people are used to a life like this [having come from Jaffna and government camps]. We're comfortable in a life like this. So I can guarantee you, we can go on months." They also remain adamant that the want to go on to Australia.
The stand-off is taking place against a backdrop of inter-party warfare over the level of 'illegal' migration to Australia. Phil Ruddock, right-wing immigration minister in the previous Howard government and architect of the so-called 'Pacific solution', is constantly in the news claiming that there are tens of thousands of 'illegals' waiting in Iran, Pakistan and Syria for the chance to get to Australia. The opposition Liberal party also claim that the current government is too 'soft' on migrants claiming that the removal of Temporary Protection Visas (TVP) and mandatory detention. Yet the figures belie this.
Mandatory detention and TVP's were introduced in 1992 and 1999 respectively, and the number of asylum seeker arriving by boat continued to rise till they peaked in 2001 and 2002 (5,500 and nearly 3,000 each). There have been 1,704 boat people so far this year, up from roughly 1,500 last year, so Australia is hardly being 'swamped' as Ruddock seems to think. Compared to the Italy's 36,000 last year and the UK's 30,500 it's a trickle.
Last year, 4,750 people sought asylum in Australia as part of an internationally agreed humanitarian program of 13,500 places (less than 1% of the world's allocation of refugees). And in the year to March 2009, Australia had a total net legal migration figure of 278,000. Of the current 'surge' in arrivals, 48% are Afghans, and 36% are Sri Lankan. In short, the wars in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka account for nearly 85% of the current arrivals.
Most of the 'boat people' are taken to detention centres on Christmas Island 2,600 km north west of Australia but only 500 km south of the Indonesian capital Jakarta. Originally set up by the Howard regime at a cost of more than $400m, there are currently more than 1,000 people detained on the island* and the facility is costing more than $80,000 a day to run. Yet this is chicken feed compared to the $48m people-smuggling program announced earlier this year by the Australian Police Force. Or the $14m that Australia is paying to Indonesia over the next 4 years to help stop the flow of asylum seekers, which includes $1m to ''enhance capacity'' at Indonesia's two detention centres in Jakarta and Tanjung Pinang, which had previously been refurbished at a cost of $7.7m to the Australian tax payer.
* 200 extra bunk beds have just been delivered and 81 demountables (portable buildings) are on the way from Woomera to increase the current 1400 bed capacity.