Rudd's new Sri Lankan 'solution'
MATT WADE, COLOMBO
November 12, 2009
THE Rudd Government is considering allowing more displaced Sri Lankans to emigrate to Australia legally in a bid to reduce the incentive for them to turn up on boats.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's special envoy to Sri Lanka, John McCarthy, has been discussing the strategy in Colombo this week along with other initiatives to stem the flow of boat people.
The Government is looking at what can be done to use the migration program to permit the orderly exit of Sri Lankans displaced by the war.
A senior official told The Age that Australia would not be opening the ''floodgates'', but trying to use existing immigration programs to reduce the temptation to leave Sri Lanka illegally.
The additional migrants would still have to qualify under existing Australian rules. And the official said care would be taken to ensure the program did not raise expectations that could not be met.
Details of how the plan would work have not been finalised.
Refugee Council of Australia chief executive Paul Power said the Government should create extra places under the rarely-used 201 visa category, which responds to people who have suffered persecution in their homelands but are unable to leave to seek refuge.
''There will be continuing pressure for some time for Tamils who find the situation unbearable and need to leave the country,'' Mr Power said.
Amnesty International refugee co-ordinator Graham Thom supported using the immigration program to help the hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans in camps. ''But it cannot be at the expense of an individual's fundamental right to flee and seek asylum,'' he said.
The migration plan came to light as Australia was given more breathing space to convince 78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers to disembark from the Oceanic Viking to be processed in Indonesia.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa agreed to a request from his Australian counterpart, Stephen Smith, to extend the deadline for the vessel to remain off Bintan Island.
The commitment is understood to go further than the previous weekly extensions to a pledge to extend it for the foreseeable future – removing some of the political pressure on the Government over a stand-off that is now in its fourth week.
It also emerged last night that Australia, in a bid to coax the Sri Lankans off the vessel, has guaranteed to resettle some of them within a month. In a letter headed ''Message to the 78 passengers on the Oceanic Viking'', the Government ''guarantees'' that those found to be refugees will be resettled.
Those already processed would be resettled within 4-6 weeks after disembarking, the letter from Jim O'Callaghan, minister-counsellor for immigration at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta said. Others found later to be refugees would be resettled within 12 weeks.
The Government yesterday continued to hold out the prospect of an early solution to the impasse. Immigration Minister Chris Evans said: ''We've got an agreement with the Indonesians that these people disembark in Indonesia.
''They will be processed as quickly as possible and we will look at resettling them if they are found to be refugees.''
Sri Lanka's ambassador to the United Nations, Palitha Kohona, said people on the Oceanic Viking were not refugees ''unless you use that expression in a rather loose manner''.
''They are economic refugees looking for greener pastures elsewhere,'' Mr Kohona said. He told ABC's Lateline that Sri Lanka would be willing to accept the people. ''They are our citizens. We will take them back''.
He said Sri Lanka had co-operated closely with Australia over the last few months to bring the illicit migration to Australia under control. It had asked Australia to help it improve Sri Lanka's defence capabilities so it could improve its coast guard.
Nationals Senate Leader Barnaby Joyce said the people on the ship should be told it was going to Sri Lanka in 48 hours and ''if you wish to get off it and be processed, that is what you should do.
''But if you don't, it is by your own volition that you will end up back in Sir Lanka''.
Since the civil war ended in May, there has been a jump in the number of Tamils heading for Australia by boat in the hope of political asylum.
Mr McCarthy is visiting areas of northern Sri Lanka held until recently by Tamil Tiger rebels and devastated during the final stages of the 25-year civil war.
Mr McCarthy will visit the Manik Farm refugee camp near the town of Vavuniya, where hundreds of thousands of Tamil refugees have been held. He will also visit recently resettled villages in northern Sri Lanka.
In Colombo Mr McCarthy has also canvassed ways to increase Australian aid spending for the rehabilitation of the war-torn areas.
Peter Baxter, director-general of the Government aid agency Ausaid, has been in Sri Lanka with Mr McCarthy to thrash out the increase in aid. No final figure has yet been decided.
This spending will be in addition to an $11 million aid package announced Mr Smith in Colombo on Monday.
With MICHELLE GRATTAN, YUKO NARUSHIMA, TOM ALLARD