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Sri Lankan Refugees Refuse to Leave Boat in Indonesia

  • Katie Hamann

Sri Lankan Refugees Refuse to Leave Boat in Indonesia

Sri Lankan Refugees Refuse to Leave Boat in Indonesia

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A stand-off between Indonesian authorities and a boatload of Sri Lankan refugees attempting to reach Australia is continuing. Indonesian authorities intercepted the boat more than a week ago, but the refugees refuse to leave the vessel until their demands are met. A convicted people smuggler is one of six Indonesian men detained for assisting the group.

For $15,000 each, 254 Sri Lankans - men, women and children - were given berths on a leaky, wooden fishing vessel and supposedly the chance at a new life. The boat was to take them from Malaysia to Australia.

But the boat now languishes at a port in Western Java, after Indonesian authorities forced it there. The Sri Lankans refuse to leave the boat until they receive guarantees that they will be granted refugee status and resettled in a country other than Indonesia.

They claim to be Tamil refugees fleeing persecution in their homeland. A man calling himself Alex has become the group's unofficial spokesman.

"There are people in the camps right now being murdered even today as we speak," Alex said. "As we are sitting comfortably on this boat on the shores of Indonesia, there are still Tamil people dying everyday. This is why most of these people here are trying to flee the genocide in Sri Lanka and trying to find a future somewhere else."

The Indonesians intercepted the boat after Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd asked Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to stop the vessel from reaching Australian territory.

Indonesian authorities say one of the six Indonesian men suspected of arranging the trip is a notorious people smuggler. They have arrested Abraham Lauhenapessy, known as Captain Bram, who is thought to have taken more than 1,500 asylum seekers to Australia since 1999.

Lauhenapesssy was released from an Indonesian prison in June this year after serving two years for people smuggling offenses.

The Sri Lankans say Lauhenapessy was one of the key organizers of the journey, which began in Malaysia on October 1.

Alex says Lauhenapessy boasted to them that if he were arrested in Indonesia he could bribe his way out of prison.

"He said that after we were caught by the navy he was not worried about that in Indonesia, because in Indonesia he could pay his way out," Alex said.

If arrested and tried in Australia, Lauhenapessy would face up to 20 years in prison.

On Tuesday, Australian Prime Minister Rudd is to attend the inauguration ceremony for Mr. Yudhoyono's second term. The issue of people smugglers and Indonesia's position as a gateway for those seeking passage to Australia is expected to be high on the agenda when the two leaders meet.

But Australia is not the only nation confronting the problem of illegal arrivals. A boat carrying 76 men, suspected of being Sri Lankan Tamils was picked up in the Pacific just off Canada's west coast a few days ago.