Standoff on Indonesian beach as asylum seekers denied access to land


There's a standoff on a beach in Indonesia where a group of Sri Lankan asylum seekers heading to Australia have not been allowed off their boat. There are reports that local police even fired a warning shot in the air.


TONY EASTLEY: There's a standoff on a beach in Indonesia where a group of Sri Lankan asylum seekers, apparently bound for Australia, has been refused permission to get off their boat.

There are reports that local police even fired a warning shot into the air.

With more, here's Indonesia correspondent, Adam Harvey.

ADAM HARVEY: The boat, carrying 44 Sri Lankan refugees, moored off the northern tip of Aceh one week ago during bad weather. The boat also had engine problems.

Those on board apparently told local authorities they were heading to Christmas Island, more than 2,000 kilometres away, to seek asylum in Australia.

They were given food, fuel, and help with their engine. But the group, which includes women and children, are still there, on their boat, and aid agencies say Indonesia is refusing to let them ashore.

Lilianne Fan from the Aceh based NGO, Geutanyoe, says aid agencies and staff from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees can't get to the asylum seekers.

LILIANNE FAN: The group on the boat, who are believed to be Tamil from Sri Lanka, have still not been allowed to disembark even though there was an instruction from the vice-president two days ago to in fact allow that disembarkation to happen.

That has not yet happened, everybody was expecting it would happen yesterday, but until this morning it still hasn't happened. I have just been getting updates from my team in the field and they say that the governor of Aceh and the head of police are currently at the site.

There was an incident yesterday where six women tried to jump off the boat, and in fact did jump off the boat, and a shot was fired by the police into the air, and that caused, of course, a lot of panic and since that incident happened yesterday evening, there was a police line that was set up and all agencies, including UNHCR, NGOs, and including some media, were all pushed back behind the police line and not allowed to enter it.

ADAM HARVEY: What have your people on the ground up there told you about what the Sri Lankans themselves want? Do they want to get off and stay in Indonesia and be processed here, or do they want to get off the boat for supplies and treatment and then continue their journey to Australia?

LILIANNE FAN: Well I mean, I think we have to remember that they've been on the boat in Aceh's waters for almost a week now. They arrived in the waters because their engine was, you know, was broken and they needed to refuel.

And certainly we've been lobbying that the most important thing at the moment is not only try to address any humanitarian needs in terms of physical needs or, you know, mental health needs, but actually also really allow access to UNHCR so that they could interview and, you know, communicate properly with this group and try to identify what their protection needs are, what their asylum claims are.

ADAM HARVEY: So you don't know if they want to stay in Indonesia or not.

LILIANNE FAN: I don't think that that's their intention at all. I mean I think that, you know, at this point people need to get off the boat. They've been drifting for a long time and it's very inhumane to keep them there in this kind of limbo.

The majority of people on the boat are women and children, you know, the fact that women are jumping off the boat says something very serious and I don't think that people are taking that, you know, as seriously as they should be.

We certainly think they need to be given the opportunity to meet with the UNHCR urgently because that is a basic of, a fundamental right to seek asylum.

And if indeed their plan is to head towards Australia to seek asylum, it's important that actually they can meet with the agency who can process their asylum claim even before, find out where they're coming from, why they're fleeing the country that they're coming from.

ADAM HARVEY: They face an unhappy and unwelcome reception, I suppose, on Christmas Island, if that's indeed where they are heading.

LILIANNE FAN: Well, exactly.

ADAM HARVEY: What would you be telling... what would you be advising the asylum seekers, or your staff up there, if you indeed had the chance.

LILIANNE FAN: Yeah, I'm really not sure we're going to get access to them at all actually, but I think that at this point, you know, if we did and if there was a way to communicate with them, I would be, I would be very concerned to understand, you know, where, why they were fleeing, first of all, what their intention was in terms of where they wanted to go, and then actually to try to explain to them a little bit what some of their real options are.

TONY EASTLEY: Lillian Fan from the Aceh based group, Geutanyoe, ending Adam Harvey's report.

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