Halt refoulement of Tamil asylum seekers and uphold the right to seek asylum
21 June 2016
The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) expresses its grave concern over the wellbeing of 44 Sri Lankan Tamils stranded in Aceh, Indonesia. Amidst growing international pressure, the group has been enduring a limbo-like situation for 11 days whilst Indonesian authorities deliberate whether or not to allow them to disembark or have them ‘towed-back’ out to sea.
On 11 June, Achenese fishers encountered a boat carrying 20 men, 15 women (including one pregnant lady) and 9 children drifting off Lhoknga in northern Aceh after engine failure. The group had departed from southern India almost a month prior intending to seek asylum in Australia. However, during the arduous journey at sea, weather conditions deteriorated and their boat – a fishing trawler designed to carry only 15 people – developed engine trouble. Nearing the coast of Aceh, bad weather struck and they became stranded. For over a week the asylum seekers were prohibited from disembarking, amidst increasingly desperate pleas to the government of Indonesia from both the asylum seekers themselves, and local and international non-governmental organisations. Temporary respite was granted to the group on 18 June, when they were permitted to disembark pending the repair of their boat, and after appeals that a sick child be allowed to receive medical care.
Despite recent positive transformations in the Sri Lankan political landscape, ethnic minority Tamils continue to be at a heightened risk of persecution and abuse at the hands of the Sri Lankan military. India, Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour, has for decades hosted thousands of refugees, with approximately 68,000 people still living in 108 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, and a further 50,000 refugees living outside the camps. In December 2014, APRRN issued a statement condemning Australia’s handover of Sri Lankan asylum seekers to Sri Lankan authorities, in which incidences of harassment, torture and rape of failed asylum seekers and returnees with suspected links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were referred to. Fearing an insecure future in Sri Lanka, especially due to recent Military crackdowns, many Tamils are unwilling to return, despite the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009 in which the Military defeated the LTTE. Lured by the false hope of a safe and secure future in Australia, many Tamils are taking advantage of a well-organised network of smugglers who put people’s lives at risk with deceptive promises of a passage to safety.
Whilst we commend the Indonesian authorities for providing basic humanitarian aid and temporary shelter to the group, the inconsistent treatment of asylum seekers raises concern over the absence of standard operating procedures (SOPs). Indonesia’s weakening commitment to the principle of non-refoulement would be exhibited by the refoulement to Sri Lanka or ‘push-on’ to Australia of these asylum seekers. We thank the Indonesian government for granting UNHCR and IOM access to assess the asylum seekers’ claims and their immediate protection and humanitarian needs. We urge Indonesia to uphold its international obligations, and not diminish the right of individuals to seek protection from persecution in their country. A lack of such due process would undoubtedly result in these people being at an increased risk of persecution upon their return to Sri Lanka.
Although Indonesia is yet to ratify the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, regardless Indonesia must uphold a greater respect for the principle of non-refoulement, the cornerstone of asylum and international refugee law, and an integral part of international customary law. As set forth in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 1948; Articles 6 and 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 1966 and Article 3 of the Convention on the Elimination of Torture, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), 1984; and various comments and recommendations of the concerned UN treaty bodies, this principle reflects the international community’s commitment to ensure all people can enjoy their human rights, including the rights to life, to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and to liberty and security of person. These and other rights are threatened when a person is involuntarily returned to persecution or danger. As such, we remind Indonesia of their obligation to make this determination before considering the forced expulsion of this group.
Indonesia has shown its potential to lead the region in upholding humanitarian and human rights principles in refugee response by welcoming and providing temporary shelter to Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants who were rescued at sea by Acehnese fishers in May 2015. These positive practices have been praised both regionally and internationally. APRRN encourages Indonesia to continue to collaborate with its ASEAN neighbours, the international community and all stakeholders, by playing a more constructive role in advancing refugee protection and addressing the root causes of persecution.
APRRN strongly urges the Indonesian government to immediately halt its decision to deport people seeking refuge from persecution, in accordance with the principle of non-refoulement, and fully uphold its international human rights obligations.
Specifically, we call upon Indonesia to:
1) Continue to allow UNHCR and IOM full and unfettered access to assess the protection needs and status of people seeking asylum in Indonesia
2) Urgently develop and implement SOPs for the reception and management of all asylum seekers and refugees in the territory, without discrimination or discretion
3) Expedite the finalisation of the Draft Presidential Decree on the Handling of Foreign Asylum Seekers and Refugees, as mandated in Article 27 of Law No. 37 of 1999 on Foreign Relations
4) Uphold Article 28G of the 1945 Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia, that “(1) Every person shall have the right to protection of his/herself, family, honour, dignity, and property, and shall have the right to feel secure against and receive protection from the threat of fear to do or not do something that is a human right, and (2) Every person shall have the right to be free from torture or inhumane and degrading treatment, and shall have the right to obtain political asylum from another country.”
5) Sign and ratify the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol
While APRRN statements are prepared in consultation with APRRN members they do not necessarily reflect the views of all APRRN members.
A PDF version is available for download here: APRRN Statement Sri Lankan Tamils in Indonesia