Daily Mirror 16th October 2009
More than 250 Sri Lankan asylum seekers launched a hunger strike in Indonesia on Thursday after they were intercepted en route to Australia in a wooden boat.
The migrants unfurled a banner on their vessel, which they are refusing to leave, saying: "15-10-2009. Life? Death. Hunger Strike for International Community".
Indonesian officials have pleaded with the Sri Lankans to leave the boat, accept temporary accommodation in Indonesia and submit their applications for asylum through the normal channels.
But Banten provincial immigration head Harry Purwanto admitted there was "limited space" currently available for them.
"We're still looking for shelter for them and don't wish to separate them because we're worried they may disagree," he said.
The tightly-packed boat was stopped Sunday after a reported tip-off from Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
The group's unofficial spokesman, who gives his name as Alex, threatened to set the boat on fire with cooking equipment but later admitted the threats were not serious.
He has told reporters the asylum seekers are in danger in Sri Lanka in the wake of the government's defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels, although he denies any of the 255 men, women and children on board are separatists.
"We are staying on this boat until the international community comes together and makes a decision on finding a way to get us out of this country," he told reporters.
"We can go anywhere -- to New Zealand, to Canada -- as long as we're not deported to Sri Lanka ."
The stand-off has fuelled Australia 's debate about illegal immigration, with Rudd under mounting pressure from the conservative opposition to stiffen border security.
It has also highlighted Indonesia 's failure to crack down on people-smuggling networks that use the country's permissive legal environment to profit from the desperation of some migrants.
Australia has been forced to boost capacity at Christmas Island , the main detention centre for unauthorised boat arrivals, to 1,400 by installing 280 temporary beds.
About 1,650 asylum-seekers have arrived in Australia since January and 1,016 plus 19 crew are being held at Christmas Island for processing. (AFP)