Friday, 13 November 2009

Oceanic Viking Update

The 3 way stand off between the Australian and Indonesian governments and the 78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers on board the MV Oceanic Viking that has been going on for almost a month appears to be slowly drawing to an end.

The Tamils were rescued by the Australian Navy in the Sunda Strait on 18 October trying to sail from Indonesia to Australia. A deal was struck between the 2 governments for the Tamils to be returned to Indonesian territory and they were transferred to the Oceanic Viking for the journey. But they have stood off the Indonesian coast for almost 4 weeks, with the Indonesian military describing the Australian ship's presence as "disadvantaging" their sovereignty.

The Tamils meanwhile refused to be sent to Indonesian detention centres and have been on hunger strike and threatened suicide to back up their refusal at various points. For their part the Australian government have tried hard to persuade the Tamils to disembark (keeping their customs vessel at sea all this time is costing a lot of tax dollars) by continuing to claim that "discussions not yet finalised" as to where the refugees would ultimately go. The Indonesians however have claimed all along that they must go into Tanjung Pinang, the Australian-funded detention centre on Bintan in the Riau Islands.

To add to the confusion, New Zealand recently entered the fray, when Green Party MP Keith Locke urged the New Zealand Immigration Minister Jonathan Coleman to help break the deadlock by taking some of the refugees, as happened during the MV Tampa saga in 2001. Apparently some informal discussions between the 2 governments were forthcoming but the New Zealand government didn't want to set a precedent and "encourage queue jumpers".*

Now 22** of the 78 asylum seekers have agreed to leave the Oceanic Viking and have been taken to the Tanjung Pinang detention centre following a breakthrough deal. This deal appears to involve expediting the Tamil's asylum claims within 3 months, rather than the 6 months it would normally take on Christmas Island, together with other benefits such as English language classes and financial assistance. In return the asylum seekers agreed to leave the Oceanic Viking and go to the detention centre on Bintan. Needless to say the other 56 Tamils are wary of the Australian promises and still appear to need to be persuaded to accept the deal.

Meanwhile, the even longer running stand off in Merak harbour also continues. There have also been negotiation taking place around the fate of these asylum seekers. However, the Indonesian government are still refusing to allow the Tamils to meet UNHCR representatives*** until they leave the Jaya Lestari 5. The Merak harbour Tamils have also been using the hunger strike tactic, with the latest involving 10 of the women amongst the 250-odd passengers having just been called off following a meeting with the Indonesian Human Rights Commission representatives.

* Coincidentally 6 Sri Lankan men intercepted by the Australian Navy and now being held on Christmas Island are staging a protest in the Island's 'red block', a small fenced off area with metal cells that is used for punishment and control purposes.
** It is not known if any of these are among the 30 or so Tamils that already have UNHCR refugee status.
*** It is understood that nearly half of this group of Tamils already have UNHCR refugee status or have documents stating that their refugee assessment is in its final stages.

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