Thursday, 24 December 2009

Merak Tamil Dies / Oceanic Viking Tamils & Christmas Island Updates

With the Merak Tamils still holding out for a deal similar to that given the Oceanic Viking Tamils, there has been the first death after 11 weeks on board the Jaya Lestari. A 29-year-old man, who had been vomiting blood for two days had been refused medical treatment until he suffered a seizure yesterday, died after being finally taken to hospital.

Despite the high-profile nature of the stand-off between the Tamils who have refused to come onshore since they were detained by the Indonesian Navy back in October, they still have not seen representatives of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Even the eight Tamils who had previously left the boat are currently being refused access to the UNHCR.

This is in sharp contrast to the treatment of the Tamils who were taken on board the Australian Customs vessel, the Oceanic Viking. Because the prolonged stand-off between the Tamils and the Australian authorities was costing the Australian government many thousands of A$ each day, they pulled out all the stops to find a fast-track solution to that particular problem. Additionally, the Oceanic Viking was moored in Indonesia waters and this gave extra leverage to the Australians to pressure the Indonesians into playing a role in that solution.

However, because this group of Tamils are in Indonesia waters on board a rickety old wooden boat that isn't Australian owned, the Australian government , despite the boat being intercepted by the Indonesians after a direct plea from Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, don't give a damn in this case. Out of site, out of mind. And they certainly aren't going out of their way to help the Indonesians find a solution to a problem that they effectively dumped on Jakarta's doorstep.

Meanwhile, in the past two week the UNHCR has finished processing the Oceanic Viking Tamils' claims, with all being given refugee status, and the organisation is now looking for suitable third countries to take them in. So far 13 have been flown to a UN resettlement centre in Romania, where they will be processed by Canada immigration officials prior to a move to Canada, and a disabled adult male and his carer have been given leave to stay in Australia, the first of a number expected to be granted visas. Norway and New Zealand are also in negotiations to take some of the Tamils, with the US another possible destination.

The deal however has been severely criticised by the Sri Lankan government, with Colombo's high commissioner to Australia, Senaka Walgampaya, saying: "We don't like this sending the wrong signal to Sri Lanka for the prospective asylum-seekers. The fact that these people are taken, of course, sends a bad message, so that may in a way encourage people to come here (Australia)." This public stance is of course to be expected, as the Sri Lankan government does not want to loose the good will (and the heavy financial contributions that the Australians are pumping into the Sri Lankan coast guard effort) or the chance to apprehend the Tamil Tigers that they maintain are 'hiding' amongst the refugees. Yet it is merely window dressing as the more Tamils the Sinhalese majority government can get rid of the better. Just a pity they are paying all that valuable international currency to those people smugglers.

Back on Christmas Island, the overcrowding situation has gotten so bad that the Australian authorities have had to start moving people to the mainland. The island's detention facilities were originally designed to hold 800 but had recently been expanded to 1560 by adding temporary housing and tents. Now, with 114 passengers and crew from 2 boats intercepted by the navy last week expected to arrive on the Island last Monday, 30 Afghan youths (all unaccompanied minors) had to be moved to a Melbourne detention facility at the weekend to ease the overcrowding, leaving 1447 detainees on the island. However, more boats are due and 35 Indonesians who had crewed boats bringing asylum-seekers to Australia were also moved off the Island to a Darwin detention centre to make more space.

Yet this is merely fiddling at the margins of the problem, one that came under severe criticism last week from Amnesty International: The organisation was particularly concerned about "the significant and disturbing levels of overcrowding within the North West Point Immigration Detention Centre, which has led to the use of tent and demountable accommodation, and the lack of ready access to essential services such as adequate mental health care." A situation they described as "completely unacceptable."

They also laid into the isolated nature of the location, which "makes it impossible to implement a humane immigration policy, and is leading to extreme detention conditions that are inappropriate and out of step with the Government’s stated ‘new detention values’." It also expressed concern with the length of time it is taking for some asylum claims to be processed.

The transfer of the 30 Afghan youths was welcomed by refugee support groups, with David Manne, co-ordinator of the Refugee Immigration Legal Centre saying, ''It's a common-sense and humane step to bring unaccompanied minors from what's really harsh and unnecessary treatment in remote detention on Christmas Island, but I'm at a complete loss to understand why it is necessary to lock up in the suburbs of Melbourne children who fled persecution and are about to be granted protection.''

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