The Federated States of Micronesia hold a very special place in my heart. Sure the fact that they are beautiful islands filled with gorgeous rainforest hikes and exciting dive opportunities helps their case, but my love for this small country runs much deeper. While working in the islands the last two years, I have been able to form intimate bonds with its people and learn so much about the intricacies of Micronesian culture.
Inevitably when you make this kind of connection, you get to know the good, the bad and the ugly. You learn things you would have never known by just passing through on a dive trip. In February on my first visit to Yap, I learned that a very bad and ugly situation was underfoot.
At lunch one day with my colleagues, the Peace Corps Response volunteer working for the Department of Public Health, Dr. Rosemary, made a passing comment about the “green boat men”. Our blank stares indicated that we didn’t know to whom she was referring, so she shared their story. We were so intrigued we spewed a barrage of questions at her in rapid succession. The story was incredible to be sure, but we were mostly stricken by the fact that this was the first we were hearing of it.
Arrival of the “Green Boat Men”
A boat with 34 asylum seekers from India and Nepal landed on Yap’s shores in November 2014. The boat captain and one crew member were from Indonesia, and paid $1500 by an Indian human trafficker to transport the men to Australia or New Zealand. The circumstances around how they arrived in Yap were unclear to me, but at any rate the state government detained the vessel and everyone onboard.
When they arrived on Yap, the men had no food or water and were suffering from a skin condition. They were treated by staff from Public Health, but it took some pushing from Dr. Rosemary to make sure they were quickly provided with food, clean water and cooking fuel by the Department of Environmental Health and Sanitation, who were charged with their care. Essentials such as soap, detergent and toothpaste had to be donated by Public Health employees, and one grocer donated a 40 lb. bag of rice and some canned foods. By December it was speculated that soon the men would be allowed to return either home to India and Nepal, or granted asylum in Guam or Hawaii. Things were looking up.
However, when we arrived in February there had been no update from the FSM government, IOM or the UN regarding their fate. The Red Cross had begun donating food and essential items by this point, with assistance from Dr. Rosemary and others in the community.
When we returned in April we learned that the Indonesian captain and crew member had been deported, and subsequently the boat sank from insufficient engine pumping. The men had been sleeping on the boat, so were now relegated to sleeping on the ground under a salvaged tarp or a bamboo-and-thatched-roof faluw. The situation was detiorating and no progress was being made in any direction.
Meeting the Men Without a Country
Dr. Rosemary asked if we might like to visit the men to distribute soap and toothpaste. Without hesitation our team volunteered; we stopped by the general store to buy these basics then walked to the harbor. Dr. Rosemary signed in with the patrol keeping a careful eye on the boat, and we were permitted entrance.
Here were 34 men, purportedly escaping political oppression, now detained and abandoned in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Initially they were even denied communication with their families, and after news of the devastating earthquakes in Nepal, many of the men were worried sick about their loved ones. They were men without a country, whose fate was completely unknown. If they were released back to their home countries, they were certain to be ostracized from their communities, or perhaps far worse.
One might have expected to walk in to see downtrodden spirits and forlorn faces, but that wasn’t the case. When we approached, everyone stood and huge smiles broke across their faces. Each greeted us individually and thanked us vehemently for the few goods we were able to bring. I looked over to their sunken boat, a symbol of their dashed hopes of freedom, then back to them. Despite everything that had happened – lost life savings, detainment – their spirits were high. They were hopeful that soon a decision would be made and they would be able to work towards their goal of a better life.
The reality was not so uncomplicated. A few days later as we cruised past their camp, I spoke with my dive instructor, a local, on the issue. He explained that although the men had not broken any laws, the local government and the community were opposed to giving them better refuge on the island. The fear was that if they were provided a more comfortable existence, even if temporary, word would get back to their friends and families and soon Yap’s shores would be flooded with refugees. Whether or not this fear was rational, the local and international governments continued to drag their feet while the men without a country stayed holed up under a hut.
In June, after a decision from IOM to allow phone calls home, a RocketHub campaign was launched to provide phone cards to the men to reach their families, and in July book donations were requested to improve morale. So far very little has been raised, and there is still no word from UN Human Rights Council. Their future at this point is uncertain. While they are fed and provided medical care, their quality of life is dismal. Dr. Rosemary has been an advocate for providing basic necessitates for the men while they await their fate, but when her tenure ends in September it is uncertain how well IOM will continue to treat them.
How You Can Help
The RocketHub campaign will be active until my birthday, September 13. As a gift to me, please donate so the men can contact their families. If you would like to send books or any other essential items, please contact Dr. Rosemary. If you happen to know an international human rights lawyer who might be interested in this story, please share. For contact information and updates, follow Dr. Rosemary’s blog.
What do you think FSM should do with the asylum seekers in Yap?