Briefing Note

No Push-Back To Sea, Give Tamil ​​Asylum-Seekers in Aceh Immediate Access to UNHCR


English | Bahasa



Banda Aceh, Indonesia- A week has passed since 44 men, women and children of Sri Lankan Tamil origin were found stranded in the waters off Lhoknga, Aceh Besar on 11 June. On the morning of 18 June, at around 04:30am, the National Government of Indonesia and the Provincial Government of Aceh finally allowed the asylum-seekers to set foot upon the shore of Aceh, in line with an instruction by the Vice President of Indonesia to the Governor of Aceh on 15 June to allow the group to disembark on humanitarian grounds.

The asylum-seekers have been placed in a makeshift camp set up by the Department of Social Welfare on the beach near the location of their vessel, with two large tents, one for men and one for women and children, as well as a communal kitchen equipped to meet their food needs. The Department of Social Welfare has said that even though it is the month of Ramadhan they will provide meals several times a day for the Tamil asylum-seekers, who are non-Muslim. The government has also provided the asylum-seekers with fuel, family kits, and they have been given medical examinations by an immigration health team.

In response to these actions, the Geutanyoë Foundation wishes to once again thank the Government of Indonesia for its humanitarian considerations and assistance given. The decision to finally disembark the group ended days of tension between the asylum-seekers, who were becoming increasingly frustrated waiting aboard their vessel, and Indonesian security forces and immigration officials who refused to allow them to disembark for many days.

At the same time, however, we remain deeply concerned that the permission to disembark is only temporary, and that effectively the authorities have merely postponed the “push-off”, intending to escort the group out of Indonesian waters as soon as the boat is repaired, without sufficient time to recover physically and mentally, without allowing them access to UNHCR and without taking into account the numerous risks that such a decision will expose the survivors to.

Because of this, on World Refugee Day, which falls on 20 June, we once again call on the Government of Indonesia to grant immediate and unhindered access to UNHCR to meet the Sri Lankan Tamil asylum-seekers in Aceh. We also urge restrictions on the media that have been in place for the last few days, to be lifted immediately.

Disembarkation Short-lived, Push-off Merely Postponed

While we welcome the disembarkation and government’s concern for the safety of the asylum-seekers, we are concerned that this good will be short-lived. As reported in the local media, the temporary permission to disembark was granted to the Tamil boat journey survivors due to bad weather conditions, where strong winds and large waves caused the boat to tilt at a 75-degree angle towards the sea. According to statements by the immigration, police and provincial authorities, the group will be allowed to stay only until repairs are completed and that the Indonesian government still intends to proceed to escort the boat out of Indonesian waters. The push-off, then, remains imminent, and there is no clarity about when this will take place.

The temporary disembarkation has also not been followed up by the granting of access to UNHCR and IOM to meet the survivors, even though the Central Government had agreed to grant such permission at a meeting with the two agencies in Jakarta on 15 June. From our observations in the field, the authorities have not provided any access to UNHCR or IOM to meet and speak to the survivors directly, even though these two institutions play an essential role in verifying the status and identities of the survivors as well as fulfilling their fundamental right to seek asylum.

The Indonesian immigration authorities’ initial refusal to allow disembarkation for the Tamil passengers seems to be based on the group’s absence of official travel documents. This rigid position has from the outset ignored the possibility that the group could in fact be seeking asylum and therefore may not have legal travel documents, as is the case with the majority of refugees and asylum-seekers who are forced to flee their homes in search of refuge from conflict, violence or persecution. For such persons, gaining access to UNHCR is one of the few ways they can obtain identity documentation that recognises their unique situation as asylum-seekers or refugees.

This situation explains the "vicious cycle" that emerged between the asylum-seekers and the government: the government rejecting the presence of survivors because they do not have authorised immigration documents, while one of the very reasons the survivors have pleaded to disembark is their wish to communicate their asylum claims to UNHCR, the international agency mandated to register asylum seekers, process asylum claims and issue documentation to asylum seekers and refugees.

The Geutanyoë Foundation has found that many of asylum-seekers are in possession of refugee identity cards issued by the Government of Tamil Nadu. While these cards are not substitutes for passports, they should provide enough of a basis for the Government of Indonesia to grant permission to UNHCR to meet the group.

Hasty Decisions Disregarding Risks to Human Life

With regard to Government of Indonesia’s continued intention to eventually push the boat of Tamil asylum-seekers back to sea, the Geutanyoë Foundation’s assessment is that such action would be inconsistent with the humanitarian and protection needs of the group, which consist of many women and children, including a 7-month-old baby. Decisions on this case seem to have been taken in haste, without weighing carefully the risks and consequences to human life in terms of safety and protection. They have also ignored the social context faced by survivors in the country of origin. Our assessment is based on the following four primary arguments:

  • The Tamil asylum-seekers have shown their basic wish to be disembarked in Aceh through a number of maneuvers, including stalling the departure process, renegotiating the terms of departure, cutting their anchor to allow their boat to approach the shore, making repeated attempts to communicate, and disembarking without official permission by jumping off the boat on several occassions.
  • Authorities have allowed the Tamil survivors to disembark only until their boat is repaired and the weather conditions allow for departure. This is not a sufficient amount of disembarkation time, and the government should wait at least to allow for a process of registration, verification and issuance of documents from the UNHCR instead of forcing them to continue their journey before they are willing to depart voluntarily.
  • Regardless of the interpretation of the authorities of the aspirations of the Tamil survivors presented to the media, the survivors themselves have not had any access to communicate their actual aspiration to national or international humanitarian agencies and institutions, including UNHCR and IOM. Therefore, we question the accuracy of the statement that the only survivors need food, fuel and maintenance of the ship, and will go after those three things are met.
  • The government has taken decisions without due consideration for the risks that may await the asylum seekers should they be forcibly to returned to Sri Lanka or pushed onwards to another country, aboard a vessel that appears to be less than seaworthy and before having their refugee claim determined by UNHCR, or their needs assessed by humanitarian organisations. There are also additional protection concerns for the women and children amongst the group.
  • Should the group be towed out into international waters by Indonesian authorities, this would constitute a violation of the principle of non-refoulement, a principle of customary international law which forms the basis of the international protection of refugees, as stipulated in Article 33 of the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
  • The authorities have also placed increasing restrictions on the media, which reached a peak on 19 June when all journalists were told they would require a letter of permission from the immigration to access the area where the camp was located. The instruction to restrict media was issued by the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, Immigration Division. Later in the day the few journalists who were allowed into the area were made to remain behind a police line and could not approach the asylum seekers at all.

With regard to the future risks that the survivors on their way to Australia, we wish to alert the Government of Indonesia to the following:

  • Australia launched “Operation Sovereign Borders" in 2013 and has since introduced tough policies designed to prevent boats of asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants from reaching Australia, including through towing boats back to sea, offshore detention, as well as offshore processing and resettlement of asylum-seekers and refugees.
  • These harsh border control policies have lead to a high number of boats being intercepted and towed back to Indonesian waters. Between 2013-2015, about 20 boats were pushed back to Indonesia.
  • Many asylum seekers have died on their way to Australia by boat, including 210 persons in 2013 alone. Many of these deaths occurred in Indonesian waters, including in the Sunda Strait and Java Sea, as well near Christmas Island.
  • For asylum seekers who do manage to land in Australia, they are immediately transferred to offshore immigration detention centers in Nauru or Manus Island in the Papua New Guinea archipelago. Recently Papua New Guinea decided the camps were unconstitutional and are refusing any more asylum-seekers from Australia. This reduces the space to process asylum-seekers and thus increases the chances they will be towed back to Indonesian waters.
  • On June 17, 2016, an Australian refugee advocacy organisation named Australian Women in Support of Women on Nauru issued a report entitled "Denied Protection, Abuse Forgiven". It detailed a systematic pattern of sexual harassment and even abuse of child refugees and asylum seekers in Nauru, as well as the impact on physical, mental and emotional health. In 2015 there were 30 formal allegations of child abuse and 15 allegations of rape or sexual assault. There have also been a number of suicides. On 26th April 2016 an Iranian man set himself on fire and died in a protest about the conditions in the Nuaru camp.

The Context of Tamil Asylum Seekers

Determining the status of persons as asylum seekers or refugees internationally is a complex and elaborate process. Ideally, such determination can be done directly by a state government, but only when those governments have ratified the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. Because Indonesia has not yet become a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, and Indonesia does not have the legal framework to manage refugees or a refugee status determination system. Thus, in Indonesia, the mandate for conducting refugee status determination lies in the hands of the UNHCR.

We urge the Government of Indonesia to take into serious consideration the background of the Tamil asylum seekers:

  • The asylum-seekers have explained to the immigration authorities that they are ethnic Tamils coming from Sri Lanka. The Tamil minority in Sri Lanka suffered a long civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger rebels from 1983 to May 2009, with an estimated death toll of 100,000 mostly civilians. In the last weeks of the war approximately 40,000 Tamils, mostly civilians, were killed by Sri Lankan forces.
  • The survivors who arrived in Aceh have asked specifically to meet with UNHCR upon disembarkation on June 18. Some of them possess refugee cards issued by the government of Tamil Nadu, which hosts about 90,000 displaced Sri Lankan Tamils who are still largely reluctant to return to Sri Lanka, even seven years after the end of the Sri Lankan civil war.
  • Over the last two months there has been a renewed crackdown by the military in Northern Sri Lanka. According to legal aid and human rights organisations in Sri Lanka, this involves a general intimidation of the population and the arrest of at least 35 former Tamil Tiger combatants and sexual harassment of women.  This has pushed some to sell their belongings or to take loans and seek refuge in other countries. This has also further deterred Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu, India from returning to Sri Lanka.
  • In April, the UN Human Rights Council expressed concern about the series of arrests of former Tamil combatants and civilians under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
  • The fact that there are a large number of women and young children on the vessel indicates strongly that they are seeking asylum, not only seeking employment, as has been suggested by several Indonesian observers.

What Should Be Done?

The group of 44 Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka who were rescued off Aceh on 11 June was not the first arrival of Tamil asylum seekers in Aceh. Seven years ago, in March 2009, 55 Sri Lanka’s Tamil refugees were rescued after being stranded off Nagan Raya (West Coast of Aceh), claiming that they were fleeing their country to seek political asylum in Australia. They were also not the first group of Sri Lankan asylum-seekers in Indonesia. In  2008, at the height of the Sri Lankan civil war, Sri Lankans made up 20% of asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia.

In view of the deteriorating security conditions in Sri Lanka from which Tamil asylum seekers are escaping and the history that Indonesia has in receiving Tamil asylum seekers the Geutanyoë Foundation calls for humane approach and recommends the following:

  1. The Government should extend permission for the Tamils to stay on shore, at least until they have a chance to be interviewed and registered by UNHCR and all their humanitarian and protection needs are addressed.
  2. The Government should give full access to international agencies such as UNHCR and IOM to communicate with and interview the asylum-seekers, and facilitate their application for asylum and protection as needed.
  3. The Tamil asylum seekers should be given the opportunity to communicate with their families to inform them that they are safe.
  4. The Government should lift all restrictions on media and allow them to access the seekers camp.
  5. The Government should provide humanitarian treatment for the Tamil survivors in manner they successfully have handled Rohingya refugees.
  6. The Government of Aceh and the National Government should consider the offers made North Aceh regency and the municipal government of Langsa who are willing to accommodate the Tamil asylum seekers in shelters that have been constructed for the Rohingya refugee community who were rescued off Aceh in May 2015.

For further information, please contact:

Lilianne Fan
International Director
Geutanyoë Foundation
Regional Office, Bangkok

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Mobile: +66924619131 (Bangkok)

Twitter: @AcehFoundation




We are dedicated to cultivating and upholding values of humanity, dignity, peace and sustainability in Aceh and Southeast Asia.