In 2009, 254 refugees staged a courageous six-month sit-in on a small boat moored at the port of Merak, Indonesia. They had been heading for Christmas Island when then prime minister Kevin Rudd called Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and asked that the boat be diverted to Indonesia.
But if Rudd expected them to go quietly, he was mistaken.
“I contacted the media ... to talk about our problems and what we needed. That was my role”, explains Nimal, one of those on the boat. “I didn’t do much, just help the people”. For someone who became spokesperson for one of the most inspiring acts of refugee resistance to Australia’s detention policies, Nimal is modest about his role.
The media was covering their story, but little practical help was forthcoming. Collectively they decided that their only option was to stage a sin-in. “We had no choice”, he explains. “We were talking to the media and nothing happened, so we kept asking the government to accept us.
“It wasn’t a good time. The boat was very small and 254 people were there together. It wasn’t a healthy life, especially for the children.”
The group of Tamil asylum seekers continued for six long months to demand their right to resettlement in Australia. They finally disembarked after receiving the promise of resettlement. “They [Indonesian authorities] told us that the Australian government already promised that our resettlement [would] be done within 12 months. But four and a half or five years later and it still hadn’t happened.”
Despite having their refugee status accepted, they were left to languish, with limited freedom of movement, in an Australian-funded detention centre in Indonesia. In 2012, they staged another protest outside the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in Medan.
“Indonesia is not the right place to put the refugees. Not just Indonesia, but countries like Nauru or Manus Island. Those are not the place for refugees. Australia has enough space ... Why should people be sent to other countries?
“Some Tamils were sent back to Sri Lanka. They were tortured. My brother was put in a detention camp. When there was a ceasefire between the Tamil freedom fighters and the government he was released. But then he was abducted. His whereabouts is still unknown.
“Life in Sri Lanka has always been terrible for Tamils. Since the day I was born I have seen persecution, killing, abductions and much more. People are tortured by the government. It has been five years since the civil war ended, but still people are persecuted ... I miss my family and friends, but I can’t say that I miss Sri Lanka because of the terrible atrocities I experienced there.”
After five years, Nimal finally arrived in Australia in January. He is not sure exactly how many of his fellow Merak protesters made it to Australia – many escaped, jumped ship or went to other countries. But he estimates that 50 or 55 have been resettled.
By chance, on his way to our interview, Nimal bumped into an old friend. “I met someone who was involved in Merak. He is here on a bridging visa. He told me he doesn’t know anything about his case. After four and a half years I met him.”
Nimal is now based in Mildura and thinking of the future.
“During my stay in Indonesia, I [came to] understand the need of people like me to help others. So I decided that I should do social work.”
Nimal continues to advocate for refugees rights. In April, he is speaking on a panel discussion “Open the borders, close the camps, free the refugees” at Socialist Alternative’s Marxism 2014 conference.
“It’s all about the rights of the people; the rights of human beings. As refugees we are not really treated well in the world, especially in Australia ... So I want to explain to the people in Australia how hard it was for me. That’s what made me want to speak out.”
[Follow Kim on Twitter @kim_doyle1]