HUMAN RIGHTS group Amnesty International has urged the Indonesian government to allow dozens of Sri Lankan Tamil asylum-seekers stranded on a boat off the coast of Lhoknga in Aceh to disembark and meet UN Refugee Agency officials.
The group said the refugees included a pregnant woman and nine children and raised fears that the authorities may attempt to push the boat – reportedly carrying 44 people – back into international waters.
Josef Benedict, Amnesty International Campaigns Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, on Wednesday said they should be allowed to disembark and meet UNHCR officials now that they have reached land.
“These people have endured a long and difficult journey already,” he said in a statement.
“Refugees and asylum-seekers frequently travel without identity documents, as often these documents are either difficult to obtain or get lost during the journey. This has no consequence on these people’s right to seek asylum. UNHCR should be allowed to register them immediately.”
Aceh fishermen discovered the boat off the coast on June 11 and subsequently reported it to the Indonesian navy, who prevented the boat from disembarking and its occupants applying for asylum, arguing that they lack proper documentation.
According to Amnesty, the Tamils’ face the threat of being forced back into international waters and authorities are still preventing UNHCR officials from interviewing them to establish the veracity of their claims and identity.
The group set out from India, more than 1,000 miles away, on a boat bearing an Indian flag. They’d been travelling for 20 days, headed for Australia, when, near the coast of Aceh, bad weather left the vessel stranded off Lhoknga.
Those on board have reportedly fled Sri Lanka, where the members of the Tamil minority have suffered persecution. Despite recent improvements, there are still concerns about discriminatory practices against Tamils by law-enforcement officials.
“We are calling on the Indonesian authorities to adopt a consistent approach in these cases. Last year Indonesia won much acclaim for providing refugees and migrants with much-needed assistance during the Andaman Sea boat crisis. It will be a grave injustice if people seeking international protection had their right to seek asylum ignored in Indonesia,” Benedict said.