Sunday night saw the loss of another boat of Sri Lankan asylum seekers off of the northern coast of Australian. The boat, carrying 39 people, sank 350 nautical miles north-west of the Cocos Islands, an Australian territory (1000 km NW of the mainland). 39 members of the crew have been rescued by a LNG tanker and a Taiwanese fishing boat, but the remaining 11 are all feared dead. The survivors are currently aboard the LNG Pioneer, which will take them to Christmas Island 1000 km east of the Cocos for medical checks, immigration processing and mandatory detention.
Meanwhile, the 2 week old stand-off aboard the MV Oceanic Viking continues, with some of the 78 Tamils on board are continuing to threaten suicide if they are forced to return to Indonesia. They claim that conditions on board the Australian customs vessel are continuing to deteriorate and the 9 month old baby amongst them is suffering particularly.
The Tamils have continued to be able to phone the outside media and have claimed that if they cannot go to Australia: "We'd like to go to another resettlement country, otherwise we can't live in the world". It has also emerged, from a note thrown overboard, that at least 37 of the Tamils have already been issued refugee status certification* by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Jakarta.
According to Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne,
"Most of these people have been in Indonesia for years waiting for a place to call home. They are recognised as refugees but this is no guarantee of resettlement. Refugees have been warehoused in Indonesia since 2001 by first the Howard and then the Rudd Government." she said. "Eventually people realise that they must help themselves as no one else will help them. This is why the boats will continue to come from Indonesia where there are currently 2,107 people registered with UNHCR who are going nowhere."
The other asylum seeker boat recently in the news also continues its stand-off with the Indonesian authorities. The Jaya Lestari 5 has been anchored off the Indonesian port of Merak harbour for more than 3 weeks with 255 Tamils on board, most originally from the notorious Manik Farm concentration camp in Sri Lanka. Pamela Curr again: "They are deeply traumatised and fear being returned to camps if they hand them selves over to the Indonesian government. 3 people from this boat have been hospitalised and 5 people with little children have left the boat because of the children. Last week water was restricted and no medical care given for conjunctivitis which was sweeping through the boat. Over 30 cases reported on Friday."
"IOM and Indonesian officers are pressuring the people to disembark. However after living in camps in Sri Lanka these people are not ready to commit to camps in Indonesia. This boat has dropped out of the media gaze - please watch carefully as they need us to ensure that their rights are respected."
In other news. the report, ‘Behind Australian Doors: Examining the Conditions of Detention of Asylum Seekers in Indonesia’, drawn up by lawyer and refugee advocate Jessie Taylor after visiting 11 places of detention in Indonesia in July, and interviewed 250 people, has been released and is causing a stir in Australia. She found that asylum seekers in Indonesia are routinely beaten and denied clean water and medical care in detention centres paid for in part by Australian taxpayers.** "Beatings usually occur after escapes from detention facilities, as a 'punishment' of remaining detainees for the escape of others"
''Detainees suffer malnutrition, depression, anxiety, skin diseases, vomiting and diarrhoea, and have been subject to violent beatings by Indonesian authorities."
“Conditions in asylum seekers’ accommodation ranges from acceptable to appalling”, said Taylor. “In the worst places, we saw babies and children behind bars, with filthy drinking water, deprived of basic education, malnourished and very, very frightened”.
“Particularly confronting were conversations with unaccompanied minors, many of whom are housed in immigration jails with adult male populations.”
Commenting on the report, Jack H Smit from WA Human Rights group Project SafeCom said, "We cannot do otherwise than point the finger of this indictment fairly and squarely at the following - and in this ranking of order as placed: (1) the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Indonesia, (2) the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Indonesia, (3) Australia as the only country that has signed the Refugee Convention and that funds operations of IOM and UNHCR in Indonesia, and (4) Indonesia - as a country that has an intent to become a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and that strives to advance further in signing and ratifying other International Conventions."
One consequence of the MV Oceanic Viking saga and this report is that the Australian trade unions have put out a call for the 78 Tamil asylum seekers to be allowed to go to Christmas Island*** so they can be processed in Australia. And the Australian Council of Trade Unions even took out a newspaper advertisement on Monday, calling on the government to take a more humane approach to asylum seekers. Needless to say the rightist opposition have seized on these incidents to attack the government's position, claiming that the news of the Oceanic Viking Tamils having been in Indonesia for up to five years prior to there recent attempt to get to Australia puts paid to the government's claims alleged recent increase in 'boat people' is due to push factors in Sri Lanka.
To cope with the apparent failure of the government's 'Indonesia Solution', the capacity of the Christmas Island detention facility is being increased from 1200 to 2000 beds, with some sources claiming as high as 2300 places. Chris Evans, the Immigration Minister, has also reiterated their commitment to mandatory detention on the Island and claimed that the children held there are not in fact held in the Islands detention facilities, they are being held in building purpose built for construction workers on the island and includes a range of recreational facilities and en-suite rooms. That's alright then?****
Serco, the company that took over the running of Christmas Island and all of Australia's detention facilities on a 5-year contract in October, have also come under criticism for announcing tough new visiting restrictions that require 24-hours notice and security screening to airport standards.
* Having refugee status, they are unable to be returned to Sri Lankan due to international agreements on 'non-refoulement'.
** Among the 2000 people held in prisons, detention centres and compounds across the country, there are refugees who had previously been granted temporary protection in Australia.
*** According to Pamela Curr, there are currently 50 people in Christmas island detention centres who hold UNHCR refugee cards.
**** The Christmas Island facilities and the offshore immigration processing project has recently been subject to a scathing report from the Australian Human Rights Commission prior to Serco staring their contract.