Sri Lanka boat people, caught in Indonesia, test Australia

The latest boat people are Sri Lankan refugees caught in Indonesia while fleeing to Australia highlights the tricky waters countries must navigate between offering asylum and stopping human traffickers.

Dadang Tri/Reuters
A wooden boat carrying 255 Sri Lankan asylum seekers is detained by the Indonesian Navy in Cilegon harbour in Indonesia's Banten province on Friday.

Australia is facing a rise in the number of refugees arriving by boat, mostly from war-ravaged Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. To curb the flow, Australia’s government is working with authorities in Malaysia and Indonesia, where the boats originate, and going after the criminals who profit from the trade.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd flew to Jakarta on Monday to meet with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who will be inaugurated Tuesday for a second term. Mr. Rudd’s opponents in Australia say he’s too soft on border controls: More than 40 boats carrying nearly 2,000 refugees have entered Australian waters since August 2008.

One boat in particular has made waves in Indonesia. Earlier this month, a boat carrying 255 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka was intercepted off Java. They have refused to leave the impounded boat, held a two-day hunger strike, and threatened suicide if they were not resettled.

Over the weekend, authorities arrested an Indonesian man on the seized boat who was previously jailed for people smuggling. Refugees said they had paid $15,000 to a Malaysian agent to be transported via Indonesian waters to Australia.

Indonesia has long been a launch pad for boatpeople bound for Australia. In 2001, Mr. Rudd’s predecessor John Howard detained asylum seekers on Nauru island and in Papua New Guinea – the so-called “Pacific Solution.” It slowed the flow of boat people, but was criticized as inhumane and unfair.

Last year, Rudd closed the offshore detention camps and began processing refugees caught at sea on Christmas Island, which belongs to Australia. His more liberal policy has come under attack, though, as the number of boats has risen, so his government is scrambling to get Malaysia and Indonesian support.

Australian media reported Monday that two more boats were intercepted in the previous 24 hours between Indonesia and Australia.

Refugees intercepted in Indonesia can expect a long wait for resettlement by the UN. Some try again to cross illegally by boat, despite the hazardous journey, often by tapping savings by relatives at home. Others languish for years in squalid hostels or other temporary accommodation.

The number of Sri Lankan Tamils trying to reach Australia is on the rise and appears linked to the defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels in May. Some refugees have said they fled from overcrowded refugee camps in Sri Lanka where Tamil civilians were detained after the war, a policy that has drawn international criticism.

The detention policy certainly gives more weight to Tamil claims of persecution. But it doesn’t get those detained in Indonesia, like the 255 men, women and children aboard the ill-fated impounded boat any closer to their goal of receiving asylum in Australia.

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