TORONTO — The food is unhygienic, the water is dirty and there’s one toilet for more than 250 people. One man has died because of the unsanitary conditions in which he, his family, and his friends were forced to live.
In early October 2009, a rickety wooden boat carrying more than 250 Tamil men, women, and children was intercepted off the coast of Indonesia. It has been more than four months and the 254 men, women, and children, seeking to avoid persecution from their own government, are still trapped on-board that 30-metre boat, still docked in Merak, Indonesia, about three hours from Jakarta.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has been denied access to the boat by Indonesian officials, even though, according to Canadian Humanitarian Appeal for Relief of Tamils (CanadianHART), more than 100 of those on board are recognized refugees.
Jessica Chandrashekar, a York University graduate student, arrived in Indonesia on Jan. 21 with CanadianHART in a planned attempt to board the ship and document the conditions by taking photos and conducting interviews with the detained. She, and two Australians with similar missions, were arrested by the Indonesian government and held for 11 hours. She did not have permission to board the ship and was repeatedly interrogated, The Excalibur, York University’s campus newspaper, reports.
Chandrashekar did not reply after several requests for an interview. However, she told The Excalibur that she was denied basic rights while under detention by the Indonesian police. "[The police] took me to the police station in Merak and held me there for quite some time. [They] questioned and interrogated me and took away my passport and cell phone and would not let us call an embassy."
According to a spokesman for the Indonesian police, Chandrashekar and her Australian counterparts tried to give documents to those on board, which is strictly illegal. Chandrashekar returned to Canada on Jan. 30, and is now banned from visiting Indonesia for six months.
In early February, Indonesian officials reported that the identities of the Tamils on-board would soon be verified and their futures would be determined. But the people on-board say they’ll only step onto Indonesian soil if they are guaranteed to be sent off of it. The Indonesian government says that’s something they cannot promise without verifying identities and documents first, but the Tamils on-board remain uncompromising.
Spokespeople for various human rights organizations say that all of the paperwork and questioning can be done while the Tamils stay on the boat, as many are afraid that they will be jailed as soon as they disembark, just as other asylum seekers were almost a year ago.
Those asylum seekers, who are currently confined to a tiny jail for 24 hours a day with less than one metre squared per person, are now on a hunger strike. They hope it will spur the authorities to provide them with a resettlement deal that will relieve them from their dirty cells and place them in a suburb in Canada or Australia.
The Tamils on-board the boat also want to be resettled to Australia or Canada. Canada would be a fitting home because, as many living in downtown Toronto know from the plethora of protests that occurred just last year, it has a large population of Tamils.
Aadish Srivastharan, a young activist who participated heavily in protests in Toronto during the war in Sri Lanka, says he’s now shifted his focus to those trapped in Indonesia, in what he calls "inhumane conditions." Srivastharan wants to go to Indonesia, but after being told of what happened to Chandrashekar, he looks a little worried.
"I didn’t know that. She got arrested? See, that’s ridiculous. How do you get arrested for trying to bring food to your brothers and sisters? It’s not right," he says, his voice trailing off at the end of the statement. Srivastharan looks off into space, trying to imagine what his countrymen and women are going through. "I understand that some people are against letting them off the boat because some are believed to be terrorists working with the [Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam]. I don’t know, maybe they are being too stubborn. Maybe, they should get off the boat and see what happens. They can’t stay on it forever."
Rights groups and the global Tamil diaspora hopes the Indonesian government will not send the Tamils back to Sri Lanka. There they will likely be branded as traitors, jailed, persecuted and charged with illegal migration, as many others trying to flee the country have been.
According to the Indonesian government in early February, the problem should have, by now, been solved. But, the government’s definition of solved likely differs from that of the Tamils’, who want safety and security promptly, as politics and paperwork are never prompt.
Srivastharan is, however, optimistic. "It’ll be over soon. They are barely surviving. They’ll have to get off if they want to live. But what kind of life will they live?"
This article was featured in the March edition of the Ryerson Free Press and Arthur.