Friday, October 30, 2009

Refugees on the High Seas

Though the "end of the war" was proclaimed several months ago in Sri Lanka, Tamil refugees continue to flee the island. According to some reports, security cameras donated by the Australian government to Colombo's airport have been used by the Sri Lankan government to identify and detain Tamil political activists, who as a result have turned to the sea as their escape route. Whatever the reason, increasing numbers of Tamils are choosing to flee Sri Lanka by boat; three such boats filled with asylum seekers have been intercepted en route to Australia in the past few weeks. In order to prevent such risky boat journeys, or so it claims, the Australian government requires that refugees it rescues on the high seas be sent to Indonesia rather than Australia.
Nearly three weeks after their dilapidated wooden boat was interdicted by the Australian navy in Indonesian waters, 255 Sri Lankans remain on board the ship in a Java port. Having been denied protection in Malaysia, these asylum seekers refuse to disembark in Indonesia because they fear being placed in detention camps. (Just this week, Malaysia released to UNHCR 66 Sri Lankan asylum seekers detained since September; 40 remain in detention camps.) Indonesia is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention, and has stated that it will not allow the refugees to remain on its territory indefinitely, raising concerns of refoulement.
Almost two weeks ago, nearly eighty Sri Lankans were rescued by an Australian customs ship, which is now moored off an Indonesian island. The local governor has said that Indonesia is not a "dumping ground" and and that he will not allow the boat to disembark its passengers. The Indonesian president has sent a delegation to meet with local officials to discuss the situation, and has asked Australia for $50 million to process and detain the refugees. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankans don't want to disembark in Indonesia, for the reasons laid out above, and are demanding to be received in Australia. Though the Indonesian central government has said it will not forcibly remove the Sri Lankans from the Australian boat that rescued them, Australia has not yet ruled out the use of force.
Detention in Indonesia would be an ironic solution to the problem, as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had closed detention camps for asylum seekers on Nauru and Papua New Guinea in favor of the more humane approach of processing asylum applications on Australia's Christmas Island. It's clear that cooperation between neighbor states will be needed to address this issue, which extends beyond Sri Lankans -- a reported 66 boats carrying over 1600 asylum seekers have been intercepted this year en route to Australia. But that cooperation should take the standards of the UN Refugee Convention as a baseline, and should seek to find a permanent solution for these desperate refugees, rather than warehousing them indefinitely in detention camps.

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