Rudd denies special deal on asylum
TOM ALLARD, TANJUNG PINANG AND YUKO NARUSHIMA, CANBERRA
November 14, 2009
Making news today: signs of a breakthrough in the Sri-Lankan asylum-seeker stand-off.
AUSTRALIAN officials halved the processing times offered to most of the 78 Sri Lankans on the Oceanic Viking during negotiations to convince them to come ashore.
That contradicts Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's assurance yesterday that they did not get a special deal.
Twenty-two of the Tamils last night left the Australian customs vessel indicating that others soon will follow them.
As they shuffled into the Tanjung Pinang detention centre, two responded positively when asked if the 56 who remained on the vessel would join them.
The Home Affairs Minister, Brendan O'Connor, said negotiations with others were continuing.
The men's transfer on to Indonesian soil, after weeks of intense resistance, followed negotiations all day on the Oceanic Viking.
The Sri Lankans have been promised resettlement in four to six weeks if they are already known to be refugees, and within 12 weeks for those not yet assessed.
Paris Aristotle, the refugee advocate who has acted as an independent facilitator in the stand-off, said the initial offer to those not designated as refugees was for processing and resettlement in ''five to six months'', if their claims were legitimate.
The processing times for those already assessed as refugees were also reduced, although by a narrower margin.
Most asylum seekers wait many years in Indonesia to be resettled in another country. Asked on Melbourne radio if the Sri Lankans got special treatment, Mr Rudd said: ''Absolutely not.
''When I look at what's been provided here, it is consistent with UNHCR processing, both in Indonesia and elsewhere around the world. The time for processing on average will just vary with each individual case, depending on the complexity.''
The people were not all being guaranteed resettlement in Australia, he said.
There could be people in this vessel ''who end up in Canada, or end up in Scandinavia, or end up elsewhere, but that's yet to be determined''.
Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull, who yesterday announced a toughening of his party's stance on asylum seekers, said the Government's offer was ''a catastrophic signal of a policy failure''.
He accused Mr Rudd of appearing to offer the Oceanic Viking people ''a better and faster passage to Australia than people arriving at Christmas Island are offered''.
The Opposition has re-embraced temporary visas of the Howard years for asylum seekers who arrive without authorisation, in a bid to put more heat on the Government.
Mr Turnbull said the ''Coalition has always been prepared to take the tough decisions'' on border protection. But two of his backbenchers, Victorians Petro Georgiou and Judith Troeth, attacked the policy.
The ''non-permanent visa'' for unauthorised arrivals, called a ''safe haven visa'', would replace Labor's system of giving people found to be refugees immediate permanent residency.
People would be reassessed after a period no longer than three years. If they were not in need of further protection they would be returned to the country of their origin.
In addition to rapid resettlement, the Sri Lankans on Oceanic Viking will receive English lessons, round-the-clock access to Australian officials and professional counsellors, guidance on the Australian way of life and free phone calls back to their families at home.
''They really struggled to believe that a commitment like that was possible and would be honoured,'' Mr Aristotle said of the revised offer. ''I think they wanted to believe it, but their life experience told them it couldn't be believed.''
He said many of those on the Oceanic Viking had spoken of horrific experiences in their homeland, while others have told the media in written notes how they suffered physically and emotionally during earlier stints in Indonesian immigration detention.
It is the detention issue that has stopped most of the others on board from disembarking.
''It tells you something about how they have been treated in the past, that they didn't want to go into detention again.'' '
Mr Aristotle said the deal contrasted with the ''crappy'' arrangements of the past and would hopefully become a benchmark.
''The Australians really engaged in a very serious way. They deserve a lot of credit for a humanitarian response.'' He described the Sri Lankans as ''terrific people, but people who have been through the wringer''.
With MICHELLE GRATTAN and BEN DOHERTY