Skip to main content

Exclusive: On board the Tamil asylum boat

By Atika Shubert, CNN
Click to play
Life of an asylum seeker
  • CNN gains exclusive footage of Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers aboard Indonesian fishing boat
  • Passengers trying to reach Australia intercepted by the Indonesian navy
  • Boat has been moored off the coast of West Java for around two months
  • Since Sri Lankan forces routed Tamil rebels, thousands of Tamils have sought asylum

(CNN) -- They are home movies of a different sort. Children scamper across the wooden deck. Parents lie on woven mats trying to fend off boredom. A handful of men share a single hose as a shower at the back of the boat.

This is daily life aboard the Indonesian fishing boat carrying more than 200 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers to Australia.

Video and pictures chronicling their daily life, were given to CNN by Sanjeev Kuhendrarajah, one of the asylum seekers. He calls himself Alex.

He was raised in Canada and is now on board with a camera and a laptop. He has become, he says, a reluctant spokesman.

"I am not the leader of this ship and I am not God. I cannot save lives," Alex said us in a broadband interview with CNN. We're at the point where we don't know what to do anymore."

Since Sri Lankan forces routed Tamil rebels seeking an independent state last year, thousands of Tamils have been seeking asylum -- mostly in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

Alex and his fellow passengers were trying to reach Australia when they were intercepted by the Indonesian navy, at the request of Australia. They have now been parked off the coast of West Java for about two months.

With his laptop, Alex beams out what he says are deteriorating conditions aboard the boat. He claims disease is spreading and access to medical care is minimal.

He shows us video of a man having a seizure on board. In this case, an ambulance came to take him to an Indonesian hospital. But another asylum seeker was not so lucky. Alex says his friend Jacob, died after days of vomiting blood.

"I tried my best to save this man. But I couldn't save Jacob. I tried to do whatever I can for him." He says before breaking down in tears. 'Jacob went through a lot of pain and in my eyes died of criminal negligence."

Video: Tamils seek asylum
Gallery: On board the Tamil asylum boat

Indonesia says it is providing food and medical attention but the asylum seekers not only refuse to leave the boat, they won't allow Indonesian officials on board to assess their condition or process their requests for asylum with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.

"They don't allow us access to check the medical situation on board. They are always refusing us entry to the boat even just to see how the situation is like" says Teuku Faizasyah, a spokesman for Indonesia's Foreign Ministry. "By refusing, they actually are doing more harm to their own people."

So, why not leave the boat or give officials access? Alex was convicted of illegal weapons possession in Canada and deported to Sri Lanka. A youthful mistake, he says, of getting involved with a gang.

He has already had run-ins with the Sri Lankan authorities. Now, the Sri Lankan government accuses him of being a member of the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam -- a terror group fighting for Tamil independence in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government also says Alex is a wanted human smuggler. Allegations he denies.

"I don't know anything about the LTTE. I don't sympathize with them at all. I don't know anything about them to support them," he says. "I don't understand. What proof do they have of that? I paid $15,000 to get on this boat. Why would I want to pay to smuggle myself out. And I wouldn't bring 250 people with me."

He fears leaving the boat will mean deportation and jail back in Sri Lanka. He wants the UNHCR to give him a shot at asylum.

"My life is now so public," Alex said. "People hate me. I did something in Canada that was childish and immature and I'm paying the price 9 years later. I deserve a break. I'm only human."

For now, however, Alex and the other asylum seekers on board are in a stand-off with Indonesian authorities. UNHCR is unable to process their asylum requests until Indonesia has cleared them and verified their identities.

Alex left behind a wife and four children, including a baby boy born while he was aboard the boat. He had hoped to reach Australia, claim asylum and then bring them afterwards. That does not seem likely now.

"What people should understand is that the situation in Sri Lanka is riskier than going to hell itself," he says. I don't know when the Tamil people will find peace, when we'll find a country but of all the things in my life, I will go as far as it takes to find these 250 people refuge, to find them a national anthem and a country they can call their own."