Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Oceanic Viking breakthrough: asylum seekers to come ashore

The month-long impasse on board Australian customs vessel the Oceanic Viking has been resolved, with all 56 Sri Lankan asylum seekers agreeing to leave the boat tomorrow morning.

Australian embassy staff spent this morning finalising a deal with the 46 men, five women and five children on board, all of whom are Tamils and say they are fleeing ethnic violence in their homeland.

Indonesia's chief negotiator, Dr Sujatmiko has sent Indonesian officials a message - seen by The Age - asking them to put extra staff on at Tanjung Pinang detention centre to accommodate the new arrivals.

“The Australians have just informed us that the 56 people are ready to come down, we will verify and evacuate to detention centre Wednesday starting 7.30am. The same process like last Friday, please add two more immigration officers and quarantine (at Tanjung Pinang detention centre),” Dr Sujatmiko said.

The decision by the 56 asylum seekers ends a stand-off that began on October 16 when a boatload of 78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers, all ethnic Tamils, were rescued from their sinking boat by the Australian ship, but in Indonesia’s search and rescue zone.

Initially Indonesia refused to allow the boat to dock at an Indonesian port, but after negotiations between Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia took the boat “on humanitarian grounds” because there was a sick child on board.

But the asylum seekers refused to leave the Australian ship, demanding they be taken to Christmas Island for processing by Australian authorities.

Since then, Australian officials have been in near-constant negotiations with the asylum seekers, guaranteeing them speedy processing in detention and additional resettlement help including language lessons and family reunifications.

Those carrying UN refugee papers, of which The Age understands there are several on board, have been promised resettlement in Australia within a month.

Last Friday 22 of the asylum seekers agreed to leave the boat and were taken to Tanjung Pinang detention, where they will be joined by their compatriots tomorrow.

UN officials have already begun processing their claims.

The stand-off has sparked a furious political debate in Australia, with the Opposition accusing the Government of misleading the Australian people over special treatment being offered to those on board the Oceanic Viking.

Mr Rudd has maintained there was no “special deal” offered, telling parliament this week “the group is being treated in a manner consistent with that afforded to any other asylum seeker in Indonesia”.

But the impasse involving another boatload of Sri Lankan asylum seekers, nearly 250 Tamils docked at Merak, shows no sign of abatement.

The International Organisation for Migration, which was assisting the asylum seekers, has withdrawn its staff from the port, out of fear of attacks from the increasingly desperate and frustrated asylum seekers.

© theage.com

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