A dilapidated wooden boat tucked away in the port of Merak, Banten, remains a floating shelter for 255 Sri Lankan migrants caught by the Navy on Oct. 10 drifting in Indonesian waters while trying to sail to Australia.
Some of the boat people, mostly children and women, have left the boat to eat meals or walk on
the dockside — in circumstances different from those of last week when they refused to get off the boat, and staged a hunger strike.
The migrants are fairly in good condition, with two sick male migrants and a child with respiratory problems, have returned to the boat after previously being taken for treatment in the nearest hospital.
The authorities have also prepared a temporary shelter near the port for them as soon as they agree to abandon the boat.
But as of Sunday, none of them agreed to move to the shelter despite intensive negotiations between the International Organization for Migration, immigration officials and the boat people.
While the boat people agreed Friday to have their boat pulled into harbor and abandoned their hunger strike, the decision on their fate here is likely to take longer, rather than be sooner.
As Indonesia has yet to ratify the UN convention on refugees, officials here are working in the
dark on what to do with these boat people; to send them back home, keep them here, or send them elsewhere.
"Aside from refusing to leave the boat, the migrants have been there for more than a week because the higher [ministerial] level has yet to decide on their status," said immigration office spokesman Maroloan J. Baringbing recently.
Maroloan said their status had to be determined before further measures could be taken.
“We could have stormed the boat and forced the migrants out if the higher authorities has declared them illegal visitors," he said.
"But we cannot do that if they are refugees or asylum seekers. The approach is way different."
He explained the status of illegal visitors would enable the immigration office to repatriate them, while refugee or asylum seeker status would require further processes; to keep them here or
send them to countries willing to accept them.
"If they are refugees or asylum seeker, we cannot send them back home as we fear their home country will put them in harm's way."
According to Maroloan, the Foreign Ministry is supposed to declare their status, and take responsibility for them should it agree to classify them as refugees or asylum seekers, and not the immigration office.
The immigration office is under the Justice, Legal and Human Rights Ministry.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah, however, said the immigration office should first arrange verification of identity.
"It's the job of the immigration office. How can we state their status if we cannot verify them through immigration?" he said.
Indonesia is a stepping-stone for migrants from poor countries en route to developed Australia.
Indonesian criminal groups are believed to facilitate the shipping of illegal migrants via islands in Malaysia or Indonesia into Australia.
The boat carrying these Sri Lankans, for example, is registered in Indonesia, and was bound from Pontianak in West Kalimantan to Australia before being intercepted by the Navy in the Sunda strait.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Tuesday he called President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for his assistance in controlling an increasing influx of alleged illegal migrants into Australia, including
a plea to intercept the 255 Sri Lankans, according to Australian media.
Several immigration officials say Indonesia has to comply with these requests because Australia has been financing Indonesia heavily in an effort to keep boat people away from its territory.