More than 250 Sri Lankan asylum seekers caught in Indonesian waters while trying to sail to Australia refused to leave their boat Wednesday and appealed to Canberra to take them on humanitarian grounds.
The migrants’ wooden boat carried a spray-painted sign: “We are Sri Lankan civilians. Plz save our life.”
It was the first time captured migrants in Indonesia had made such a public appeal.
Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd confirmed Tuesday that he called Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to discuss the boat, which the Indonesian navy intercepted Sunday.
One of the migrants, in a phone interview, denied reports that they had threatened to set their boat on fire.
“Some screamed, ‘We bomb’ or ‘Set boat on fire,’ but that was just because they are so afraid when our ship was dragged to the port,” said the migrant, Alex, who declined to give his full name, fearing persecution. “In fact, we don’t have any explosive within the boat.”
He said those on board include 195 men, 31 women and 27 children.
“There are people that were actually tortured, there are people who had legs cut off, limbs cut off, people that were actually burned,” said Alex, who said he was an ethnic minority Tamil who left Sri Lanka in July because he had been tortured. Earlier this year, the Sri Lankan government defeated Tamil rebels, who had waged a 25-year civil war to establish an independent state.
Some ethnic Tamils say they face discrimination from the majority Sinhalese-dominated government.
With thousands of islands, Indonesia is a popular transit point for migrants seeking to reach Australia after fleeing war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka.
The number of migrant arrivals in Indonesia has jumped from hundreds last year to thousands in 2009, but authorities say they don’t have the resources to shelter them and some will be sent back to their countries.
The Sri Lankans “do not want to be sent back to their home country. They just want to be let free to sail to Christmas Island,” said Col. Irawan, chief of navy base in Banten province. Christmas Island is part of Australian territory and lies south of the Indonesian island of Java.
“They are exhausted, but they are staying on the ship and do not want to go inland,” added Irawan, who like many Indonesians uses a single name.
The International Organisation for Migration was providing basic provisions for the migrants, while the Indonesian government decides on their fate.
Alex said the migrants paid $15,000 each for the trip to Australia, but the engine broke down and their boat was left drifting.
He said he escaped violence in Sri Lanka with his wife, but they were separated in Malaysia on October 1 after surviving for two months in the jungle. Human smugglers refused to take her because she was eight months’ pregnant, and he hasn’t heard from her since.
“We will hold on to the last string of hope, last string of faith, and trust that the Australian government can do what human nature and human rights require the government to do,” Alex said. “We just want to go Australia, if they don’t mind accepting us.”