Sri Lankans admit living in Indonesia
TOM ALLARD AND JOSH GORDON
November 1, 2009
MOST of the Sri Lankan asylum seekers in a stand-off with Australian authorities off the coast of the Riau Islands have admitted living in Indonesia for years, providing the Rudd Government with leverage to convince Indonesia to take them back.
The development is seen by Australian officials as a possible circuit-breaker to the stand-off, which has caused much political and diplomatic anguish.
Indonesia's senior official in charge of the matter, Sujatmiko, said he was unaware of the history of the asylum seekers but asked that all information be passed to him as a matter of urgency.
In written messages thrown off the Oceanic Viking, the Australian customs ship that has been home to the 78 ethnic Tamils for the past two weeks, the asylum seekers said they had been living in Indonesia for as long as five years and had been accepted by the United Nations office in Jakarta as genuine refugees.
They said they engaged a people smuggler because of their frustrations that no country would accept them, leaving them to sit in limbo in rented accommodation in Indonesia, unable to work or study.
''For four to five years, we waited until we are tired before departing illegally by boat,'' said the message, which was written in Bahasa Indonesian.
The message insisted the Sri Lankans had arrived in Indonesia ''normally''.
Part of the Indonesian justification for not taking the Sri Lankans is that they are refusing to be registered by their immigration officials. But it appears that they already have been. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees doesn't process asylum seekers unless they have been registered first.
After the Sri Lankans were picked up in Indonesia's search and rescue zone two weeks ago by the Australian Navy, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd believed he had an agreement with his Indonesian counterpart, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, for Indonesia to take them. But the deal has unravelled spectacularly in the past week.
The asylum seekers said Australian officials had told them they would ''like to have us leave the boat this week''. But the Sri Lankans are refusing to budge.
''Australia doesn't want to accept us. Send us to other countries like Canada, Norway, Switzerland, New Zealand,'' the note thrown to The Sunday Age said. ''We are not in good shape, stressed. Why? We don't have future.''
Indonesia has given Australia until Friday to persuade the Sri Lankans to voluntarily set foot in Indonesia. Indonesia says it won't remove them by force.
Yesterday's development came as the Federal Government announced a doubling of the capacity of the Christmas Island immigration detention centre as it braces for more boat arrivals.
Immigration Minister Chris Evans said the capacity of the centre would be expanded to more than 2000 beds to cope with the high number of arrivals.
Demountables from the Northern Territory will be installed on the island within weeks, with the extra capacity in place by the end of the year, Senator Evans said. He said the upgrade would cost ''in the order of $30 or $40 million''.