On June 11, a small, dilapidated fishing boat was stranded off the shores of Aceh, Indonesia. On board were about 45 Tamil people who had crossed nearly 1,800 kilometres of ocean from Sri Lanka. Their goal was to seek asylum in Australia, which would require sailing another 3,800 kilometres.  But their engine was broken and they were out of fuel.

The Tamil are an ethnic minority in Sri Lanka, and have faced decades of discrimination and violence from the Sri Lankan government, which culminated in the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009). Tens of thousands of Tamil refugees have fled the country.

The Indonesian government has not allowed the Tamil boat to land or the people to disembark in Aceh, citing a lack of travel documents. The government wants the Tamils to continue their journey to Australia as soon as possible, despite the fact that Australia has a very stringent immigration policy and has been criticised for holding asylum seekers indefinitely in detention centres.

The civil war in Sri Lanka officially ended in 2009, but Tamils have said a crackdown on their minority has intensified in the past two months. Amnesty International and other NGOs have reported on the rape and harassment of Tamil women, enforced disappearances, and other human rights abuses against the Tamil community.

“We got within five metres of the boat and saw families, including one pregnant woman and around seven children”

Hermanto Hasan is the co-founder of the local Indonesian humanitarian organisation Yayasan Geutanyoe, which tried to make contact with the Tamil people.

“On June 13, our humanitarian team tried to approach the Tamil boat, which was about two kilometres off the coast of Lhoknga, Aceh Besar district. At that point, it had already been stranded offshore for several days, unable to land because of engine problems.

We got within five metres of the boat but authorities prevented us from boarding or even talking to anyone onboard. However we could see that there were about 45 people on the boat and that they seemed to be families. There was one pregnant woman and around seven children, including at least one infant.

They looked tired, but it was impossible for us to tell if they had other health concerns.

“Their boat is not designed to cross the ocean”

We’ve been told that they haven’t landed since they left India on May 2, a month and a half ago. The boat they’re using is a small fishing boat. It’s not designed to cross the ocean, and is definitely not big enough for 45 people. There must be sanitation problems on board. We’re not sure how they are able to cook.

Representatives from the NGO Yayasan Geutanyoe try to visit the Tamil refugee boat.

A day before we visited the boat, Indonesian authorities had already reported that the passengers had been given fuel and assistance to have their engine fixed, that they were in good health, had sufficient food supplies and wished to continue on their journey to their country of destination, Australia. The government intended for them to push off again without getting any closer to land. But the fact that they were still in Aceh Harbour on June 13 indicated to us that there may be urgent needs that remain to be addressed, or at least that the people want to land temporarily.

The next day the boat docked five metres from Lhoknga Beach. We lobbied the vice governor of Aceh, Muzakir Manaf, to visit the boat, which he did on June 15. Manaf asked the Aceh police chief to allow for boat to be taken to disembark in North Aceh. This was rejected due to Jakarta's position to not allow disembarkation. By this point, there were police, immigration officials, and a few soldiers present to make sure the Tamil people did not disembark.

Manaf then tried to board the boat and bring UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) representatives onboard with him, but this also was prevented by the police and military.

“At the very least we think the Tamil people should be allowed to wait for better weather”

The Indonesian government has said that the Tamil boat will have to leave Aceh today (Thursday). It’s winter right now, and bad weather is currently forecast for the ocean between Indonesia and Australia. At the very least we think the Tamil people should be allowed to wait for better weather.

The boat of Tamil refugees near Lhoknga Beach.

It is the Indonesian government’s position that the Tamil people are not refugees or asylum seekers. However, only the UNHCR has the authority to decide whether or not someone is a refugee. So far, the Indonesian government has not allowed anyone from the UNHCR to interview the Tamil people in order to determine their status. We wish to remind the government of Indonesia and all stakeholders that the right to seek asylum is a fundamental right as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The government has demonstrated excellent cooperation with UNHCR in the handling of asylum-seekers in previous years, including in the processing of Rohingya asylum-seekers and refugees last year, and this should continue.”