Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind?

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In October last year, Indonesian authorities intercepted a boat carrying Sri Lankan asylum seekers at Merak in West Java. A long, well-publicised stand-off between the Indonesians and the Tamils ensued, as the asylum seekers refused to leave the boat until they had assurances that they would be given refugee status in Australia. By all accounts, the conditions on the boat were horrendous. The boat was designed to accommodate 50 people comfortably rather than the 254 individuals it had transported.

In January, a humanitarian team, including two Australians — Sara Nathan, a refugee activist from the Australian Tamil Congress, and Pamela Curr, from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre — and one Canadian national, went to see the boat and were detained by the Indonesian authorities.

"The Indonesian officials took us into a police station and started asking why we’d gone to visit the boat," Nathan told newmatilda.com by phone earlier this week. "They kept making accusations, but every time they spoke they accused us of different activities. First they accused us of offering the people on the boat humanitarian visa applications. Well, we didn’t do that at all. But even if we had done that, that wouldn’t have been illegal." Then the Indonesian officials’ accusations became more serious: "They accused me of being married to a people smuggler. It was ridiculous!" The accusation apparently centred on the fact that Nathan is Tamil herself. "Yes, I’m Tamil, and I’ve been living in Australia for 22 years."

For three days, the team was questioned by the Indonesians. They were allowed to go back to their hotel rooms at night. Nathan says that they weren’t mistreated. But, oddly, it was for this reason that Nathan and Curr were rebuffed when they first sought help from the Australian Embassy. "The embassy told us they couldn’t do anything at that point, and we should call them again if it became more serious, and we got arrested or hurt." In the meantime, the Indonesian authorities demanded that Nathan and Curr cut contact with the outside world: "They made us hand over our passports and our mobile phones," Nathan claims. "Our phones were the only way we were able to call the embassy and our families and friends."

Finally, the Indonesians announced that they were deporting Nathan and Curr for alleged visa violations. "The last day, we were told we couldn’t leave the hotel. And then we got deported." They were banned from visiting Indonesia for six months.

When asked why she thinks the Australian Government wasn’t more proactive in her case, Nathan is direct: "I think the Government wanted to … make an [example]out of us," she says, matter-of-factly. "The Government wants to show [Tony] Abbott and everyone that it’s strong on so-called illegal immigrants and people smugglers. They all want to outdo each other in repelling refugees from Australia."

Nathan believes that, as a federal election looms, the Rudd Government is attempting to neutralise the Opposition on the topic of border protection by making strong statements against illegal immigrants and people smuggling. "All we hear them talk about now is border protection. They play on these anxieties that Australian borders will be overrun by illegal immigrants." For Nathan, current national anxieties about hordes of refugees arriving by boat are bizarre when compared to the relative nonchalance displayed towards those people who travel to Australia by plane and overstay their visas.

"There are around 50,000 people who slip into the country by plane, and no one cares. But we worry about 100 small boats of people who come from war-torn countries," she says.

On 19 April, after six months of a deadlock with Indonesian authorities, the Tamil asylum seekers docked at Merak finally agreed to leave their boat and were detained in Tanjung Pinang, a detention centre in Indonesia paid for by the Australian Government. "They aren’t living like kings there. There are 45 people in a cell. We worked out there’s about 2.75 square metres per person," says Nathan.

Prior to that, the number of Tamils onboard the boat had dwindled because one had died and several had returned home during the six-month stand-off. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that others were believed to have escaped and had engaged the efforts of people smugglers to continue travelling to Australia.

Nathan says that among the detained asylum seekers are two three-year-old girls. She has tried to send money to the families of these children but has been told by an official at the detention centre that she can’t. "If they let me send money, it would look like I’m propping up people who have propped up people smugglers," she explains. Nonetheless, she has persuaded officials to let her send $100 worth of clothing to the children instead.

But Nathan reserves her harshest condemnation for the Rudd Government’s decision to put a freeze on asylum claims from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. "I don’t understand this," she says. "The Government says it has frozen the [asylum]claims because the situation has improved in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. How would it know? It’s turned a blind eye to the incarceration of Tamils in Sri Lanka after the war. Governments around the world have been ignoring the situation in Sri Lanka. Hillary Clinton told the Sri Lankan Government ‘The world is watching’ — but the world has not watched at all."

This week marked the anniversary of the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka. On 17 May 2009, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam conceded defeat to the Rajapakse Government. But as Sara Nathan points out, "No one is celebrating the anniversary."

New Matilda

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