Sri Lankans look set to be moved to Nauru
Mark Forbes, Jakarta
March 3, 2007
The Age (Melbourne)
A GROUP of Sri Lankan asylum seekers looks set to be processed on the Pacific Island of Nauru after Indonesia said it would simply return them to their homeland if it were asked to deal with the 83 men.
The Howard Government was told from the start the Sri Lankans would be immediately repatriated and prevented from making asylum claims if they were transferred to Indonesia, senior Indonesian officials have stated.
Contradicting claims by Australian ministers that they were waiting to find out if Jakarta would allow the asylum seekers to make claims through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Indonesia Foreign Ministry spokesman Desra Percaya said Canberra knew this was never an option.
Asked why Foreign Minister Alexander Downer was yesterday still claiming he is awaiting Indonesia's decision, Mr Percaya said: “I would suggest you ask Mr Downer himself.”
Mr Downer said yesterday the Government had not made a final decision on where to send the refugees if Indonesia formally refused, but Nauru was most likely.
“If they decide that they don't want the processing to take place in Indonesia then obviously one of the options for us is to have them processed in Nauru,” Mr Downer said in Adelaide.
“These people will be processed according to law and according to Australia's obligations under the refugee convention,” he said.
Mr Downer has repeatedly said Australia would not transfer the Sri Lankans to Indonesia if they could not claim asylum there. The men were intercepted off Christmas Island last week after sailing from Indonesia.
Last Friday, Australian officials proposed the plan to quickly send the 83 Sri Lankans home, via Indonesia, to avoid asylum claims as Indonesia is not a signatory to the United Nations refugee convention.
Indonesia and Sri Lanka agreed to the proposal. Sri Lankan ambassador to Indonesia, Janaka Perera, confirmed Australian officials had provided details of the plans for quick repatriation.
Mr Percaya yesterday said Canberra knew then that Indonesia would not allow the Sri Lankans to have access to UNHCR procedures. “Between Canberra and Jakarta contact has been established right from the time the incident happened,” he said. “We expressed our position, we made it very clear.”
“We made it clear we are ready to receive them back in Indonesia with the understanding that they are going to be sent back to their country of origin and secondly we are not ready for international organisations to be involved.”
As Indonesia was not a party to the refugee convention “we don't have any obligation under this convention to process them in Indonesia”, Mr Percaya said.
At the meeting in Jakarta last Friday, Australian officials said Indonesia could justify returning the asylum seekers to Sri Lanka as they had arrived in Indonesia illegally. They also said the Sri Lankans should be returned as quickly as possible to prevent them lodging asylum claims.
When Canberra's plan was revealed in The Age, Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews guaranteed that Australia would protect their rights under the convention to seek asylum and they would not be forcibly returned to face persecution. Mr Downer arrives in Indonesia tomorrow and will hold talks on the Sri Lankan case and the broader issues surrounding people smuggling.
Australia is concerned about the prospect of a new flood of asylum seekers, with an estimated 5000 Sri Lankans in the region having fled.
Refugee groups fear for the men if they are returned to Sri Lanka because of the ongoing civil war between the government and rebel Tamil Tigers.
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