Indonesia Gives UNHCR, IOM Access to Sri Lankan Migrants

Nurdin Hasan and Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata
Banda Aceh and Jakarta
160621-ID-boat-620.jpg Officials in Aceh attempt to push a migrant boat back out to sea, June 20, 2016.
Nurdin Hasan/BernarNews

Indonesia on Tuesday gave the U.N. refugee agency and International Organization for Migration (IOM) access to 44 Sri Lankans whose boat ran aground 10 days ago off the coast of Aceh, as witnessed by a BenarNews reporter.

Local authorities also suspended attempts to tow the ship back to international waters, after two days of bad weather. On Tuesday, high waves drenched the engine and caused the boat to list 45 degrees.

“Looking at the condition of the boat now, no way can it be pulled back to sea,” said Achmad Samadan, head of immigration at the provincial government’s Ministry of Law and Human Rights.

He said personnel from the IOM and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would be able to collect complete data on the migrants.

“We’ll know who they really are. Let there not be inaccurate data,” he said.

In Jakarta, Dicky Komar, a human rights official at the foreign ministry, said a joint team of local and central government officials were on site to observe the situation.

“We are trying to find the best solution for them. We are working with UNHCR and IOM to address the issue of asylum seekers and refugees,” he said.

Via India

Acehnese officials had prevented the migrants from coming ashore for a week, then changed their minds, saying they could disembark while their boat was being repaired.

Since Saturday, the migrants have been housed in an open tent on Lhoknga beach, about 15 kms (9 miles) northwest of the provincial capital of Banda Aceh. Local officials have given them fuel and food.

During a visit by BenarNews to the scene, migrant children played as adults dozed in the shade.

Nurdin Hasan/BenarNews

A 25-year-old woman, who was six months pregnant and gave her name as Sudha, told BenarNews she was a Sri Lankan national born in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Her parents fled there during the decades-long war between Sri Lanka’s government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which ended in 2009, she said.

“One year after my parents fled to Tamil Nadu, I was born,” Sudha said.

According to her, all the people aboard the ship are Sri Lankan Tamils who had lived in Tamil Nadu for years and have refugee documents issued by the Indian government.

“Tamil people have a hard time finding work and we don’t have identity [cards] because we are seen as Sri Lankan,” she said.

She said they left India for Australia in the hope of a better life, but the ship’s captain deserted them on the open sea and left them drifting until they came aground off the coast of Aceh.

“My brother-in-law has been in Australia for three years. He went there in a boat like us,” she said.

Asked if they were prepared to return to India, she said, “No way can we go back there. We’ll die, because no one can work in Tamil Nadu.”

Herry Sudiarto, a senior immigration official in Banda Aceh, earlier told BenarNews that the 17 men, 22 women and five children aboard the boat had no official documents.

A long and difficult journey

In a statement last week, Amnesty International (AI) criticized Indonesia for confining the travelers to the Indian-flagged boat (pictured above).

“These people have endured a long and difficult journey already. Now that they have reached land in Aceh, they should be allowed to disembark and meet UNHCR officials,”  said Josef Benedict, AI’s director of campaigns for Southeast and the Pacific.

The migrants had travelled 1,700 kms (1056 miles) over 20 days before reaching Indonesian waters, the statement said.

Thomas Vargas, the UNHCR representative in Indonesia, told BenarNews on Monday that he hoped the Indonesian government would allow his staff to interview the migrants.

“We hope to get access and speak to the migrants to find out if they are really seeking asylum,” he said. UNHCR could then assist Indonesia in handling the next steps, he said.


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