Tamils bid for asylum in NZ

DETERMINED: Pangesu Tamailila, 11, wants to live in New Zealand.
DETERMINED: Pangesu Tamailila, 11, wants to live in New Zealand.

Whenever officials come near them, Sri Lankan refugees holed up on a boat in an Indonesian port continue to cry out demands to come to New Zealand.

Eleven-year-old Pangesu Tamailila, flanked by dad Magesu and mum Batheni, waves her handmade placard pleading: "We are Sri Lankan refugees we like go to new zland (sic)."

Reporter Yuli Sepri, who boarded the MV Alicia on behalf of the Sunday Star-Times said: "Inside the ship the refugees, both women and men, cried aloud when I entered in the ship, accompanied by police.

"They unfurled their banners, screaming, 'We want to come to New Zealand, We are not terrorist and smugglers, We are refugees, New Zealand please accept us. UN help us."'

Using broken English and speaking through a translator, refugee Ramasami Suresh, 50, a businessman who used to import stationery, said the 87 Sri Lankan Tamils on board the ship – including Pangesu and four other children and six women, one eight months pregnant – want to go to New Zealand and nowhere else.

Suresh said what he knew about New Zealand came largely from studies at school and reports in newspapers.

But he was convinced of this fact: "New Zealand is good, I don't like to [go to] Australia."

Prime Minister John Key has said the refugees cannot come here. Accepting a boat load of asylum seekers would open the floodgates to "millions of others" and reward people smugglers, he said.

The refugees were stopped by Indonesian water police after the boat developed mechanical problems last Saturday.

The boat is now anchored off the port of Tanjung Pinang off Sumatra. They were officially detained but have refused to leave the ship until their safety is guaranteed and they are assured of asylum here.

They were mostly from northern Sri Lanka and fled the country two years ago during the final stages of the war between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels. Most have lived in Malaysia since.

Suresh said he had lost family in the fighting.

They hired the ship in Jakarta by selling possessions and through financial help from various organisations. They estimated they had provisions for a month and their health condition was good "so far".

Local police director Yasin Kosasih said port authorities would do regular medical checks.

Ultimately, police aimed to persuade them to go to an immigration detention centre. He said police had not yet had a ruling from Indonesian immigration authorities about their status.

Green Party immigration spokesman Keith Locke MP said Tamils fleeing persecution should be welcomed here.

"John Key is tarnishing New Zealand's reputation as a compassionate country, established when we took in Afghan asylum seekers from the Tampa in 2001."

Helen Clark's Labour government accepted 150 Afghan refugees from Norwegian freighter Tampa.

Key said New Zealand was not an inhumane country and the government accepted 750 refugees annually from the United Nations's refugee agency, the UNHCR, which identified "legitimate" refugees.

The government had legal obligations once the boat was in our territorial waters, but until then the clear message was "we don't want people coming to New Zealand in this form".

Sunday Star Times