Monday, 23 November 2009

Christmas Island 'Riot'/Merak Tamils' Humanitarian Crisis

A special team of five reassigned Australian immigration officers has been assembled to 'fast track' the Oceanic Viking Tamils' asylum claims following the ending of their stand-off with the Indonesian authorities. The remaining Tamils holding out on the Customs vessel left for Tanjung Pinang Detention Centre after more than 4 weeks after their rescue.

Immediately it appeared that Indonesia reneged on assurances that the 5 women and 5 children would not be held in the detention facility and would be free to come and go. Instead they being held in a locked room in the older part of the detention facility. Despite the hasty new sign saying "Temporary Holding Room", the women's building is exactly the same as the men apart from a razor wire fence.

It also appears that the fast-tracking of the Oceanic Viking asylum claims has led to some dissension and increased tensions between different groups of migrants in detention, both in Indonesia and on Christmas Island, where a riot broke out on Saturday night.

The half hour long disturbance involved 150 Tamil and Afghan detainees armed with pool cues and broom handles. 40 detainees, including 3 that were flown to Perth on the mainland 2,600 km away for treatment on broken bones, and 5 staff were injured. In addition to the conflict over perceived differences in treatment, the overcrowding situation on the island is also being blamed along with tension over the forced return of a number of Tamils last week.

Currently 975 people are being held in accommodation that has been expanded from an initial 400 places to the present 1028 places by adding extra bunk beds. Some additional building outside the centre's fence are also used as overspill for holding children but are not classed as being part of the camp. The riot comes just a few days after renewed calls by Amnesty International for the closure of the island's facilities.

Meanwhile the Jaya Lestari 5 stand-off in Merak harbour continues and tensions remain high as the humanitarian crisis mounts. The 255 Tamils on board have been there even longer than their Oceanic Viking cousins and their vessel is an aged wooden hulk compared to the modern Oceanic Viking.

Last week the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), after weeks of suffering restricted access to the boat because of the high levels of security dockside which had severely restricted their humanitarian activities, finally withdrew citing the possibility of the increasingly desperate Tamils taking some of their staff hostage. This followed fights between the Tamils over access to the limited water available on the boat and complaints from the UNHCR about their being unable to visit the Tamils.

Generally, the Indonesian authorities do not seem to know how to handle the situation. After having threatened to send troops in to forcibly remove the Tamils and put those that did not already have refugees status on board an Indonesian Navy vessel for forcible deportation back to Sri Lanka, an act that would ave violated a number of international treaties and protocols, they have backed down and said they are willing to allow the UNHCR access to the boat, a long-standing demand of the Tamils. Exactly when this will occur is anyone's guess.

As monsoonal rains lashed the boat at the weekend, the latest news from Merak is that conditions on the vessel continue to deteriorate. There is only one toilet and at least 60 on board, including children, are suffering from severe diarrhoea and vomiting. Some have had to be taken to the local hospital. And with the withdrawal of the IOM, the only medical aid they are getting is from Australian refugee advocates providing advice over the boat's mobile phone.


bathmate said...

nice posting. very good work. thank you. :)


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