Posted by: joan49 | September 18, 2012

The Story of Boat 1

Hi Everyone,
Here is a summary of what’s taken place since I got involved with the refugees. I had heard the news that 2 boats of refugees from Sri Lanka had arrived in Sikakap on Sept. 1, when one ran out of fuel and the other broke down, but assumed the government was handling it and didn’t think that much about it except as a surprisingly weird-out-of-the-ordinary story for life here in Mentawai. As it turns out, one of the boats was hunger striking and refusing to leave their boat until their demands were met after it became clear that the government was not simply going to sell them fuel and let them go on their way. I got called in on the afternoon of Day 8 of the hunger strike when over 10 people on the boat began passing out. Only then did I meet them and become aware of the real situation. Because a few of them spoke broken English and no one here in the local government does, I was able to communicate with them, and so the local police asked me to help with translating.
The police were trying, obviously, to convince them to eat and get down from their boat while waiting for further information from Jakarta as to how to handle this. The refugees were terrified the police were going to arrest them if they came off the boat and send them back to Sri Lanka. They told me they would rather starve to death here than get sent back. They were also hoping that by hunger striking, the government would simply sell them the diesel fuel they needed and let them be on their way. Turns out the Indonesian government, at the desperate request of Australia, has agreed to not help boat refugees go to Christmas Island because Australia is trying to encourage refugees to come through the refugee centers via legal channels, not by boat which is extremely dangerous. Hundreds, if not thousands, of refugees are killed each year trying. When I finally convinced the refugees that they were not going to be allowed to just continue their journey they said that they would continue hunger striking until they were allowed to meet with IOM, International Organization of Migration, which works under the UN Refugee unit (UNHCR). They felt confident IOM could help arrange their immediate transport to Christmas Island.
In the meantime, I was able to communicate to them the police and locals public health concerns that diseases arising from the lack of sanitation on the boat could spread to the community. The fact that 53 people crowded on a tiny fishing boat had not bathed for almost 2 weeks in tropical heat was odorously obvious starting about 20 feet from the boat. The nuns from the local Catholic clinic who were helping start IVs on the unconscious patients wore face masks to keep from getting sick from the smell. The police promised me they would not arrest anyone who stepped down from the boat, so finally the refugees agreed that the children and women could go to the Catholic clinic to bathe, and the more severely ill patients could be taken there for treatment on the condition that I personally accompanied them both ways to guarantee their safe return, and that they be brought back to the boat by 7pm so they could hold their nightly prayer meeting together. I also insisted that a 4 month pregnant woman on the boat who was extremely ill be allowed to eat. After some discussion amongst themselves, they unanimously agreed to allow her food, but the woman herself refused for a while longer not wanting to break solidarity with her fellow refugees. Eventually, though, we convinced her to eat for the sake of her baby. The refugees gave me a list of email addresses and asked my help in sending out their story to generate public interest which I promised to do. I was also able to negotiate with the police to return the boat batteries which the police had taken for fear the refugees would run. I explained that the batteries could not power the engine but only provide electricity so they would not have to sit on the boat in the dark at night. Thankfully, the police agreed, and so after 10 days of hostility (all of the above actually took place over Saturday/Sunday/Monday) both sides were more at ease and felt like some progress was being made. On Tuesday, Day 11 of the hunger strike, I told the refugees I was planning to leave Sikakap the next day, and they immediately panicked and said if I left that there would be no one there left to help them. Even if a government official from Padang came who spoke English they would not be able to trust him, because only with me, a foreigner, did they trust I could not be bribed  They promised to do anything I said if I stayed, so I agreed to stay on the condition that they break their hunger strike. They agreed, and so the nuns and I spent the next few hours rounding up a kind of soft mush made from boiled rice which was the only thing I allowed them to eat after so many days of fasting…
We are currently waiting to hear where they will be sent in Indonesia, probably to a detention camp. Sadly, they do not have many options and none of them sound good…most likely they will be left waiting in a detention camp for at least several years…please keep praying for them.

Next: Their story continued, and what happened with the other boat…


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