The Indonesian authorities in Aceh are endangering lives of a group of more than 40 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers by firing warning shots and threatening to push them back out to sea in flagrant violation of international law, Amnesty International said today.
“Instead of deploying these crude intimidation tactics that could put the lives of men, women and children at risk, the Indonesian authorities should come together to allow them to disembark safely so the UN Refugee Agency can interview them,” said Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s Director of Campaigns for South East Asia and the Pacific.
Today’s latest attempt to force the boat off the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh province and back out to sea comes a day after local Aceh police fired warning shots in the air, terrifying at least five Sri Lankan Tamil women who tried to run ashore. The group aboard the boat includes a heavily pregnant woman and nine children.
On Friday, a Banda Aceh immigration office spokesman said the Tamil asylum seekers who set out from Sri Lanka three weeks ago will not be allowed to disembark in Indonesia. Their original intended destination was Australia’s Christmas Island.
Aceh police chief Inspector Gen. Husein Hamidi said that after providing food to the group of Sri Lankan Tamils and repairing their boat, the policy and navy were preparing to push them back into international waters.
“Indonesia risks squandering the good will it generated when it provided assistance last year to hundreds of refugees and migrants who had been stranded on the Andaman Sea. In contrast to what happened in May 2015, developments this week invite comparisons with other countries that have a notorious record of setting desperate people adrift and at risk of death on the high seas,” said Benedict.
The immigration office, police and navy in Aceh have ignored Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla’s directions to provide the group with shelter. Instead, they have blocked off the area, denying the Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers access to the shore.
UNHCR officials are on standby in Aceh province, ready to interview the group of Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers to verify their identities and determine their status.
“The immigration office and security forces in Aceh are flouting the authority of their own Vice President and not letting the UNHCR do its job. Consistent standards must be applied across the board, with all Indonesian authorities working together with recognized international bodies,” said Benedict.
Aceh fishermen discovered the boat off the coast of Aceh province on June 11. They subsequently reported the boat to the Indonesian Navy who have not allowed the people on the boat to disembark and apply for asylum, arguing the asylum-seekers lack the proper documentation. Under international law, neither a lack of documentation nor irregular entry precludes people from seeking asylum.
The boat began a hazardous journey from India after those on board reportedly fled Sri Lanka, where the members of the Tamil minority have suffered past persecution. Despite many recent improvements, there are still concerns about discriminatory practices against Tamils by law enforcement officials.
The group had set out from India, more than 1,700 km away, on a boat bearing an Indian flag. They had been travelling for more than three weeks headed for Australia. As they neared the coast of Aceh, bad weather struck, stranding their boat off Lhoknga.
The UN Human Rights Council noted in April that Sri Lanka saw a spate of arrests of Tamils under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Arrests carried out under the PTA have, in a number of cases, failed to meet the minimum standards of due process laid out in directives by Sri Lanka’s National Human Rights Commission. Sri Lankan Tamils remain deeply concerned about what they say is a persistent culture of surveillance in the north and east of the country.