Group Of Migrants In Yap Detained For Over A Year

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

34 Indonesian, Nepalese leaving in deteriorating conditions

By Maria Hernandez

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Feb. 29, 2016) – Thirty-four migrants from Indonesia and Nepal have been detained for more than a year at a harbor in Yap. Living under police custody, their futures remain uncertain.

While Yap’s attorney general’s office says the men’s conditions are deteriorating — even saying the amount of food they are given is insufficient — an official from the Federated States of Micronesia’s Department of Justice says the FSM government hasn’t received any documentation describing such conditions.

The FSM government official called the situation a national security issue — one in which the national government must balance the safety of its citizens from illegal immigrants with the humane treatment of the migrants.

Yap, located about 500 miles southwest of Guam, is a state within the Federated States of Micronesia. The Department of Justice falls under the national government’s executive branch. Yap’s attorney general’s office represents the state.

The 34 men arrived in Yap’s capital of Colonia after setting sail in hopes of escaping political conflict in their countries, said Karameno Ifa, a pastor at Seventh Day Adventist in Yap. They came to Yap on November 2014 after their dilapidated ship broke down.

Yap Assistant Attorney General Rachelle Bergeron said the migrants are currently confined to a dock area and their supplies are dwindling.

The men’s only protection from the elements is traditional huts made of leaves and other local materials, Bergeron said. The huts have a roof without any walls.

"The typhoons in May put the huts in bad disrepair," she said.

The FSM government provides the men with food but the amount is insufficient to regularly sustain them, she said.

FSM Chief Litigator Clayton Lawrence, of the justice department, said the national government didn’t receive any documentation informing it of the "deteriorating" conditions in which Bergeron stated the men were living.

"When issues arise like these issues, as far as people starving ... there’s usually official documentation showing these issues exist," he said. "We haven’t received any documentation from the (Yap government)."

Bergeron, however, said Lawrence had visited the men in October and witnessed the poor conditions personally.

Additionally, she said the Yap governor has sent reports to the FSM president and secretary of justice requesting immediate assistance to address their living conditions and inadequate food supply.

"They’ve basically been denied," she said.

Since she took her position in August, Bergeron said three or four updates have been sent to the president on their poor conditions, and that her predecessor has sent updates as well.

Lawrence said the government does prioritize the humane treatment of the men.

The national government has been providing them with food, clothing, shelter and necessities, he said.

"I believe we are doing the best we can with the resources we have to balance both protecting the safety and security of the Yap community and treating these individuals humanely," he said.

Lawrence said the individuals entered into the country illegally without any documentation. He added the FSM government is working to ensure the safety of Yap and the nation.

"We have illegal immigrants breaking national law entering our country illegally," he said. "They have no documentation. We have no idea who these people are ... We don’t know if they’re violent. Our priority is our citizens and their safety and security."

In response, Bergeron said the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted a criminal background check on the 34 migrants, and they’ve all been cleared. She added the men have also passed medical background clearances and don’t carry any sort of communicable diseases.

The group did originally consist of 36 men. Two men from Indonesia were convicted of human smuggling and were sent back to their home countries.

After the group had arrived, the men were interviewed and it was found there was "some human trafficking or smuggling happening," said Bergeron, prompting the FSM national government to detain them.

Working with UN

The 34 men aren’t currently seeking asylum with the FSM, partly because they haven’t been provided with access to legal counsel, Bergeron said. She said the men haven’t been provided with any information from the FSM government as to why they’re being detained.

Lawrence said the FSM government, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration are monitoring the men’s well-being.

The United Nations organization is reviewing the men through their own protocol to determine whether they’re refugees.

A few of the men have already been declared refugees, Lawrence said. Bergeron also confirmed this, and added that the United Nations is supposed to collaborate with the national government to determine the next steps, if any, for the men.

Lawrence said the FSM government is working closely with the International Organization for Migration to ensure the individuals are informed of the decisions made by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"If the asylum seekers are declared by UNHCR as refugees, then those refugees will fall under their gambit and they will take care of those refugees," Lawrence said.

Those who aren’t declared refugees will be sent back to their home countries, he said.

"In the meantime, we’ll take care of these individuals humanely and provide them with the necessities," he said.

It could take up to five years before the men are placed in another country, Bergeron said.

"I hope that the situation will be resolved soon and the men won’t be stuck in this arbitrary detention for much longer," she said.

Food, supplies

While FSM Immigration provides the men with food once a week, Bergeron said the food is nutritionally inadequate, especially for 10 vegetarians in the group, and not enough to sustain them for an entire week. The men sometimes have gone one to three days without food after having exhausted their supplies, according to Bergeron.

The men have been receiving food more regularly from the International Organization for Migration, but they continue to miss a meal or two, Bergeron said.

Bergeron said in December, they weren’t able to access a toilet or shower for over a week because a pipe had broken at the dock bathrooms.

Visitor ban

In October of last year, the FSM secretary of justice enforced a visitor’s ban that barred residents from being in contact with the men. Additionally, residents were no longer allowed to make donations, which the men relied on heavily for survival, Bergeron said.

Community members are upset about the ban and the lack of information from FSM regarding the men, she said.

"The recent visitor ban has had a considerable negative impact on the men’s psychosocial well-being, as they now have no means of communicating with the outside world," Bergeron said.

Bergeron said within the last month, she asked the secretary of justice to let the men receive visits from island clergy, but the request was denied.

The ban has also prevented anyone from the community to monitor the situation to ensure the men’s basic needs are met, she said.

The FSM government can still provide assistance to the men, but "is failing to do so," Bergeron said.

Bergeron said the FSM government hasn’t issued any formal notice as to when the nature of the men’s status converted from recipients of humanitarian aid from Yap State to having illegally entered FSM.

Bergeron said the men would like to have freedom of movement in Yap.

"That’s what we’re trying to do but it’s not technically under our jurisdiction," she said. "It’s an immigration issue so unfortunately we only have very limited power in what we’re able to do."

Lawrence stressed multiple times in an interview with Pacific Daily News that this is a national security issue.

"We’re taking this matter seriously. It’s a balancing act between the safety and security of the nation and people of Yap and also treating these humans humanely," he said.

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