Fri, 09 May 2003

42 Vietnamese stranded in West Nusa Tenggara

Luh Putu Trisna Wahyuni, The Jakarta Post, Mataram, West Nusa Tenggara

Forty-two Vietnamese boat people who left the South Kalimantan capital of Banjarmasin for Australia three weeks ago have turned up in the West Nusa Tenggara capital Mataram.

West Nusa Tenggara Police spokesman Adj. Sr. Comr. H.M. Basri said on Thursday security guards detained the boat people at Sape Port last Tuesday.

They were arrested for not having the necessary documents to pass through Indonesian waters, the officer said.

"The police are having trouble interrogating them because they only speak Vietnamese," Basri said.

The local representative of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is currently handling the matter, he said.

The boat people left Vietnam on April 6 to seek political asylum in Australia. They were found drifting off the Banjarmasin coast without food and with a damaged boat engine on April 18.

Officials there counted 19 men, 13 women and 10 children crammed inside a 15-meter-long boat they said was not seaworthy.

After providing them with food and fuel, the boat people were allowed to continue their trip, a move that irked Australia.

Australia has repeatedly asked Indonesia to prevent refugees from entering its shores. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer reiterated this call during last month's international conference on people smuggling in Bali.

Australia has been a favored destination for illegal migrants from troubled countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam over the past few years.

The IOM representative in Mataram, Yong Lai Kong, met with the boat people and confirmed that they were seeking political asylum in Australia.

"We'll coordinate with the UNHCR representative here to ask for its help to assess whether the refugees will be awarded the status of refugees," he said.

Quoting the Vietnamese, Yong said they viewed the Vietnamese government as repressive and the country as unstable politically and economically.

"They told me that the regime in Vietnam is quite repressive and that is why they fled and are seeking a third country to provide them political asylum," he said.

This is the first time authorities in Mataram have intercepted Vietnamese migrants. So far 919 illegal migrants, mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, have been detained in Mataram.

The process to determine the status of the Vietnamese could take months.

Yong added that his office was trying to send home more than 35 illegal Iraqi migrants now stranded in Mataram.

"We are waiting for the situation in Iraq to improve following the coalition forces' aggression in that country so we can send them back home," he said.

He said many Iraqis fled former president Saddam Hussein's repressive regime, and one of their favorite destinations was Australia.

Residents of Mataram have expressed their displeasure at the presence of the migrants. The city administration has been asked to send the migrants home immediately because many of them are alleged to have committed crimes while in the city.

"They (migrants) have been involved in several rape and robbery cases, and have had clashes with locals in entertainment centers in the city," said an owner of a hotel in Mataram.