Australia Expected To Resettle Asylum Seekers

Australia expected to resettle asylum seekers

By Geoff Thompson for AM and staff

Posted Thu Nov 19, 2009 7:22am AEDT
Updated Thu Nov 19, 2009 9:15am AEDT

After four weeks off the coast of Indonesia, the Customs ship Oceanic Viking last night weighed anchor and began the journey back to Australian waters.

A few hours earlier, the last of 78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers entered a detention centre in Tanjung Pinang, ending an impasse that has kept the Federal Government on the defensive.

Next is the debate over whether the 10 women and children in the group are also in detention, or outside it, as Kevin Rudd says they are.

The stand-off may be over but it has clearly left a bad taste in the mouths of many Indonesian officials, if not the country's president.

Indonesia's top official dealing with the month-long saga, Dr Sujatmiko, says the asylum seekers and his government expect Australia to keep its promise to resettle them soon.

“[The asylum seekers] are very glad to disembark from the vessel, hoping that Australia keep the promise to come to Australia,” he said.

“This is their expectation and Indonesian government expectation.

“[They will go to] Australia, or other countries. We'll come back to Australia to keep the promise. After the deadline, out from Indonesia.”

But Immigration Minister Chris Evans says there is no guarantee they will come to Australia and it will be up to the UNHCR to decide how many of the group do come.

“I made it clear that I thought we'd obviously be taking some,” he told Radio National.

“So we'll see [the UNHCR] refer people over the next few weeks.

“We'd expect to take some but the exact numbers we won't know yet for a while.”

In the detention centre partly funded by Australia, immigration officials made the final count on the number of people who left the Oceanic Viking.

Dr Sujatmiko was clearly glad to hear that the Australian Customs ship was heading back to Australian waters.

He was asked if he wanted to go through a similar ordeal again.

“Well, I wish this is the last.”

Razor wire

The Federal Government says there is a special arrangement for the 10 women and children among the 78 Sri Lankans, adding they will not be housed in the detention centre but in a facility nearby.

Dr Sujatmiko says that while they had initially entered the detention centre, they would soon be transferred next door to a building called temporary holding room and canteen.

“This is the request from Australia that we are going to treat women and children separately,” he said.

“We are going to give the children a much better place than [the detention centre].”

The holding area has bars on the windows, however the only razor wire runs along the wall of the adjoining detention centre.

A senior Australian official says the women and children will be able to come and go as they please.

Dr Sujatmiko says he cannot comment on whether President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono cancelled his visit to Australia because of the asylum seeker stand-off.

“I empathise. This is the first and the last. We will not enjoy this, entertain this kind of incident,” Dr Sujatmiko said.

“I think this is really very complicated issues and we have to make sure that in the future we have to settle this issues very, very carefully between Indonesia and Australia.”

Political frenzy

The Opposition has welcomed the end of the stalemate but say damage has been done to Australia's reputation.

Much of Question Time in Federal Parliament this week has centred on the immigration debate and whether the Government has given the Sri Lankans a special deal not available to any other refugee in Indonesia.

The human rights advocacy group Amnesty International says that by whipping up a frenzy over the arrival of asylum seekers, Australian politicians are exploiting the issue.

The group's secretary-general, Irene Khan, says told ABC 1's Lateline program that a humanitarian approach is needed and that some politicians are creating a sense of panic by predicting a flood of boat arrivals.

“It's not a flood, the numbers are low. And secondly the arrivals are not being caused by change in asylum policy, the arrivals are being caused by situations in the countries of original like Sri Lanka and Afghanistan,” she said.

“The Leader of the Opposition is exploiting a situation, politicising a humanitarian situation, in which people's lives are at stake.

“He's not the only one. There are others also speaking like that and it's actually very dangerous to whip up public opinion when the attempt should be made to actually bring out the issue that these are desperate people seeking protection.”


Video: Geoff Thompson discusses end of stand-off (Lateline)
Video: Ocean Viking asylum seekers in detention (Lateline)
Video: Amnesty's secretary general discusses human rights (Lateline)
Audio: Oceanic Viking leaves Indonesia after four week stalemate (AM)
Audio: No special deal for asylum seekers: Government (AM)
Audio: Listen to Mark Colvin's interview with Irene Khan on PM (PM)

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