By Richard Potter
In early June of this year, a boat with a failed engine carrying five children, 22 women, and 13 men was found in the water by fishermen off the coast of Aceh, Indonesia. One of the women on board was pregnant and one of the children was an infant. Those on board were all ethnic Tamils who had recently fled from their native Sri Lanka and were now seeking asylum. At the same time, human rights observers documented evidence of increased persecution and horrific torture against Tamils by Sri Lankan authorities. Initially taken in by the fishermen, the group was later returned to sea by Indonesian authorities who claimed that the asylum seekers’ boat had been repaired, that those on board were in good health, and that they were to continue on to their desired destination of Australia. Human rights organizations immediately called foul, especially since the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and local non-governmental organizations had been denied access to the asylum-seekers. The callousness by Indonesian authorities is alarming in itself, as well as part of a worrying trend in the region, where human rights abuses are causing waves of mass migration that neighboring countries are unwilling to fully accommodate.
Sri Lanka was the location of a brutal civil war that ended in 2009, having claimed the lives of an estimated 100,000 civilians. The conflict, which began in July 1983, was preceded by decades of marginalization and violence directed against the minority Tamil community, leading to eventual formation of a separatist rebel force: the Tamil Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Through the course of the war both sides were accused of committing atrocities; in the final phase of the conflict, which saw the total defeat of the LTTE, an estimated 40,000 people were allegedly killed by government forces, most of them Tamil civilians.
Since the conclusion of the war, there have been continued accounts of human rights abuses by Sri Lankan authorities, particularly “disappearances” of Tamils and government critics. The latter have been associated with the so-called “white van” phenomenon, in which unmarked vehicles have been used to allegedly abduct, torture, and, in some cases, kill persons targeted by state authorities.
The International Truth and Justice Project, a South African-based NGO, has reported on 23 cases of alleged abductions by the Sri Lankan security forces in 2015 and 2016, which reportedly involved the torture and sexual abuse of victims. The British NGO Freedom From Torture has also documented alleged acts of torture in which victims showed signs of “branding with heated metal rods and sexual torture.”
Fear or experience of severe persecution, in addition to a de facto military occupation in the northern, predominantly Tamil parts of Sri Lanka, appear to be key push factors in the latest waves of emigration. In such conditions, refugees are afforded the right to access asylum procedures under international law. In a statement, The Geutanyoe Foundation, an Aceh-based NGO, pleaded, “We wish to remind the Government of Indonesia and all stakeholders that the right to seek asylum is a fundamental right that all human beings are entitled to, as stated in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Lilianne Fan, international director of The Geutanyoe Foundation said there were believed to be 150 asylum-seekers who had left in the same group as those in Aceh. All were fleeing due to a recent increase in persecution against Tamils and former Tamil Tiger fighters. This number was corroborated to me at the same time by a Tamil refugee who works closely as an informant for media outlets and wished not to be named. He stated that 50 of those who were supposed to have fled were arrested in India, where they planned to disembark from to travel to Australia, but that the remaining asylum-seekers were taken on a boat by people he suspected to be human traffickers. There has been no apparent contact with the remaining asylum-seekers, who were believed to have been on at least one other boat at the time of this writing. Loss of contact for such a duration is cause for concern, as those on board may have been lost at sea or possibly sold into modern slavery by traffickers.
The same Tamil refugee relayed that the Sri Lankan government is cracking down again on Tamils and former LTTE fighters in the region, accusing them of reorganizing. This has led to a wave of arbitrary arrests, interrogations, and torture while in custody. He confirmed an increase in forced disappearances of Tamils by Sri Lankan Authorities. In June he said that he knew 30 former LTTE who had been arrested or abducted over the course of only two months for what he believed were false charges. The decision of many Tamils to flee and seek asylum abroad is a predictable result, and one that seems likely only to increase until human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government cease.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, summarized the cause of fleeing to me: “After years of a bloody civil war and then post-war ‘rehabilitation’ camps and persecution, it’s not surprising that Tamils from the North don’t feel safe." While claims made by people fleeing the Sri Lankan government need impartial assessments to be verified, agencies like the UNHCR need host countries’ cooperation to do so. Indonesia allows asylum-seekers to disembark in the country, but its initial refusal to allow UNHCR access to these people raises questions about the government’s commitment to human rights and undermines the capacity of the UNHCR to help those in need. Robertson drove this point home: “The only way to fairly ascertain and assess these people’s claims is for UNHCR to get in there and do what it does—which is screen asylum-seekers and determine whether they have a legitimate claim to refugee status.”
The Indonesian government’s hesitation to fulfill this obligation under international law is indeed cause for concern. In particular, the overwhelming number of refugees and asylum-seekers in the region may be eroding commitment from the nations that would act as hosts to those in dire need. With asylum-seekers steadily fleeing from religious or ethnic persecution in several countries in the region the burden will only increase in countries like Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia, which require tremendous financial and personnel support from the international community to fulfill their duty as hosts, as well as commitments by third countries to accept and resettle portions of these refugee populations.
Currently, the number of registered refugees in Thailand is around 150,000. Most of them are ethnic Karen who fled from civil war and well-documented war crimes in neighboring Myanmar, but in city centers there are also large Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Somali, and Burmese populations, all having fled persecution, conflict, and war crimes. Over 150,000 refugees are registered living in Malaysia, the majority of whom are ethnic Rohingya, who fled religious persecution in Myanmar, with a large portion also fleeing religious persecution in Pakistan, as well as ethnic persecution in Sri Lanka. In Indonesia there are nearly 15,000 asylum-seekers registered living in camps and detention centers. In Bangladesh there are 30,000 registered refugees, and an estimated 200,000 unregistered; all of them are ethnic Rohingya who fled Myanmar. An unknown, but likely staggering number of people live undocumented throughout the region, often moved by traffickers and pushed into modern slavery. They flee persecution and conflict in the region, or even as far away as Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. The scale of migration does not lessen the responsibility of host countries to take in refugees, but a handful of economically vulnerable, and in some cases politically unstable, countries certainly cannot succeed in sustaining these populations without international support.
With this in mind, greater attention and effort need to be exerted to address the root causes of the increase in asylum-seekers across the region. Evidence of human rights violations should be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated. While such investigations should emphasize the impact of such violations on the international community, particularly in the form of mass movement of peoples, they should also address the repugnant policies in countries that deny these rights and declare without exception that they have no place in the modern world.
Richard Potter is a writer and social worker from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
[Photo courtesy of Lilianne Fan and The Guetanyoe Foundation]