On November 17, 2014, a boat with 35 asylum seekers from India and Nepal arrived in the harbor of Yap, Federated States of Micronesia (hereafter Micronesia). According to the two Indonesian crew, they had been paid $1500 to transport the asylum seekers to Yap, where the asylum seekers had been told they would be transferred to Australia, New Zealand or the United States. In reality, there was no additional transportation awaiting them and the vessel they arrived on was already dangerously low on fuel, food and water.

Yap is one of the four island states of Micronesia, an island chain comprising over 600 islands stretching almost 2,700 km across the Pacific Ocean just north of the equator. Micronesia is a Compact of Free Association nation with the US, which entitles the citizens of this sovereign nation to freely live and work in the States. Under the Compact, the US also provides defence, economic services, health services and other benefits from its domestic programs to Micronesia.

Given their condition, the Yap state and Micronesian national governments determined they had an international and humanitarian duty to keep the asylum seekers on the island until an appropriate investigation could be launched. They were kept under careful watch at the Yap Port Authority as they eagerly awaited news. Initially the asylum seekers remained sheltered on their boat, but when the crew was deported the boat sank in the harbor due to improper engine pumping. The state officials provided the men shelter under a faluw, or traditional thatched roof structure, which is where they have lived since March 2015.

During the first month, most food and provisions were donated from community members, before the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Red Cross and the US Embassy activated funding and provisions to support the asylum seekers. However, over the last ten months the allocated funds from each of these organizations have waned as the decision process continues.

Challenges for Yap

Human trafficking is not an entirely new phenomenon in Micronesia. The IOM opened field offices in the region in 2009 to combat the issue, and has launched a series of campaigns aimed at eliminating human trafficking through the island states. In the last two years, the Migrant Resource Center in Micronesia has assisted 26 stranded migrants from across the world with the provision of food, shelter and repatriation to their home country if requested.

The motives behind human trafficking are varied, but all too often people seeking political asylum fall prey to traffickers offering empty promises of refuge. Yap had never encountered political asylum seekers in the past, so the arrival of the boat from Indonesia presented a new situation for the small island state.

The novelty of the situation meant roles for the state, national and international agencies involved were not clearly defined. The decision process has been long and cumbersome.

Human resources and funding available to assist the asylum seekers were not adequate to sustain the group over several months. The state also had the added burden of three illegal fishing vessels from Vietnam to handle at the same time, and the effects of super typhoon Maysak, which hit Yap in early April 2015.  

Rallying community support was another major challenge. There was fear throughout the island that if the asylum seekers were provided a more comfortable existence, word might get back to their families and more boats would arrive, straining resources further.

However, as agency funding ran out, state officials charged with the care of the asylum seekers sought supporters within the community for the provision of food and other necessities.

Progress

The asylum seekers did have some supporters on the island who were willing to advocate on their behalf and collaborate with the intergovernmental agencies and community members to help provide for them as they await their relocation ruling.

US Peace Corps volunteer Dr. Rosemary B. Duda said: “The United States was largely settled by people who wanted a better life. That is the reason I give when people ask me why these men left their homes -- for a better life for themselves and their families. While the men did not intend to come to Yap, they are here now and we are doing everything possible to ensure that the men are safe and well treated while awaiting placement.”

Money has been raised, including on a crowd-funding website, to provide food and other necessities. The public health department has fully committed to providing medical care whenever needed, whether the costs are reimbursed immediately or not.

The local government has opened dialogue with the community, and a radical plan has been proposed to place one man in each village to provide assistance to the community in exchange for room and board until a more permanent decision is made. If approved, this would not only improve the morale of the asylum seekers, but would also relieve much of the financial stress on the state.

The asylum seekers were interviewed by UN refugee agency representatives in July 2015 and allowed to call relatives at home for the first time. A determination of their status has not yet been made, but it has been suggested that if they were granted refugee status it could take as long as five years to relocate them to Australia or elsewhere.

A lesson

Just shy of one year since their arrival, the asylum seekers in Yap have served as an important example to the island nations in the Western Pacific Region, and other developing nations. At a time when there are more displaced asylum seekers and refugees than any time since World War II, even developing countries like Micronesia need to have a clear policy and strategic plan in place to appropriately handle any asylum seekers who may land on their shores.

As for this group: their fate now lies with the UN refugee agency. Hopefully a decision regarding their status will be made quickly, and the 35 men can find a more permanent settlement than the faluw in Yap harbor.

 

Ashley Tippins is an epidemiologist who has worked in Yap providing technical assistance to the Department of Health. The views expressed in this article are her own. She would like to acknowledge Mr. Stuart Simpson and Dr. Rosemary B. Duda for their contributions to this article.  

Find out more about the UNHCR and the international framework for processing asylum claims here