Rudd Faces Questions Over Deals To Settle Tamils

Rudd faces questions over deals to settle Tamils

The Sydney Morning Herald
January 19, 2010

The last of the asylum seekers from the Oceanic Viking are due to leave Indonesia this week. Most are destined for New Zealand, which originally refused to take any of the 78 Sri Lankans on the customs vessel.

The development ends a challenging saga for the Rudd Government that began when the Tamils refused to get off the Oceanic Viking after being rescued on the high seas.

The situation strained relations with Indonesia, and questions remain about how the Government and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees managed to convince several countries to accept the Tamils so quickly.

Most asylum seekers in Indonesia wait four or five years before being resettled but those involved in the four-week stand-off on the Oceanic Viking will find new homes within two months thanks to a special deal brokered by Australia in exchange for their disembarkation.

''There's an indication that the movement [of the remaining Sri Lankans] is taking place this week,'' said Teuku Faizasyah, a spokesman for Indonesia's Foreign Ministry. ''It looks like it will be happening this week. If that's the case, it's good.''

Sources at the Tanjung Pinang detention centre said 13 asylum seekers would leave for the Philippines for processing tomorrow before going to New Zealand. The final three will come to Australia. Twenty-eight of the Tamils are heading to the US, 13 to Canada, 13 to New Zealand and three to Norway.

The three at Tanjung Pinang who will come to Australia will join 18 others. Twelve of those processed by Australia have been resettled on the mainland. Four who did not pass ASIO security checks, and two children of one of them, remain on Christmas Island.

New Zealand originally rejected accepting any of the asylum seekers but changed its mind for reasons that remain unclear.

Sources familiar with negotiations said all the nations initially refused to be part of the deal to resettle the ethnic Tamils.

The acting Opposition leader, Julie Bishop, said: ''The Prime Minister must disclose what he has offered to other countries as an inducement to take people from the Oceanic Viking.''

A spokesman for the Immigration Minister, Chris Evans, said Australia had ''assisted the UNHCR to find resettlement solutions for the passengers on board the Oceanic Viking'' but denied there had been any inducements to other countries.

Mr Faizasyah said Indonesia was anxious that the episode was not repeated and suggested his country would not be prepared to accept boat people intercepted by an Australian vessel again.

''We don't foresee a similar situation happening in the future,'' Mr Faizasyah said.

Meanwhile, at the Javan port of Merak, almost 250 Sri Lankan asylum seekers continue to live in squalid conditions and are refusing to disembark from their boat after a 100-day stand-off.

They want the same deal as their fellow countrymen on the Oceanic Viking have received but their demands have been rebuffed by Australia, even though they were detained by the Indonesian Navy following a personal request from Mr Rudd.