By Ainur Rohmah
TUBAN, Indonesia (AA) – An Indian-flagged vessel carrying around 35 Sri Lankans that was stranded in waters off Indonesia’s Sumatra island has set sail for Australia.
An official from the Lhoknga sub-district of Aceh province said Monday that Indonesian security forces escorted the vessel with ethnic Tamil on board into international waters Sunday night, according to Indonesian news outlet kompas.com.
The boat, reportedly carrying 17 women and five children, was stranded in Indonesian waters Saturday after suffering engine damage amid strong winds that forced them to anchor around 300 meters (984 feet) from Lhoknga beach in Aceh Besar regency.
Aceh’s immigration office helped repair the vessel on condition that it sailed out of the country’s waters, which it was scheduled to leave Sunday morning -- plans that were delayed due to bad weather conditions, strong winds and large waves.
"Once the weather subsided, the migrant ship departed to the open sea and was escorted by police and military," kompas.com quoted Ramli, who like many Indonesians uses one name, as saying.
On Sunday, the chief of the supervision and enforcement department of the local immigration office, Usman, said that Indonesian authorities did not know why the vessel was headed to Australia.
Last month, Australia repatriated around a dozen Sri Lankans whose vessel had evaded border patrols and arrived on Australia's Cocos Islands, after determining they were not refugees.
Under Australia's immigration policy, it refuses to accept asylum seekers who arrive by boat, instead detaining them at offshore detention centers, where conditions have been described as appalling by rights advocates.
However, an apparent change in the status of Sri Lankans arriving in Australia allowed authorities to quickly return those on board the vessel intercepted in early May.
Speaking to a Sri Lankan English-language weekly in April, Maj. Gen. Andrew Bottrell, the commander of 2013 Australian border protection initiative "Operation Sovereign Borders", noted that there had been a "situational improvement" in Sri Lanka since the end of the country's 25-year war in 2009.
He underlined that the profile of unauthorized Sri Lankan arrivals had subsequently changed from asylum seekers to economic migrants.
According to Australian statistics, prior to 2013 Sri Lankans accounted for nearly one fifth of undocumented people attempting to reach Australia -- of 53,000 undocumented arrivals, over 10,000 were Sri Lankans.
In 2012, some 122 boats were detected trying to reach Australia, but on the implementation of Operation Sovereign Borders in 2013, the number had dropped to 14.
“Since this initiative, no Sri Lankan boat has reached Australia. All were diverted,” Bottrell told the Sunday Observer weekly.
After more than 25 years of violence, Sri Lanka's brutal civil war ended in May 2009, when government forces seized the last area controlled by Tamil Tiger rebels.
A 2013 United Nations panel estimated that around 40,000 civilians died in the war, while other independent reports have estimated the number of dead to exceed 100,000.
Rights groups have claimed that abuses continue on both sides.