Thursday, November 19, 2009

Standoff with Sri Lankan asylum seekers ends

Dozens of Sri Lankan asylum seekers on Wednesday left an Australian customs vessel anchored off Indonesia after they were promised they would be resettled, ending a monthlong standoff.

The 46 men, five women and five children were taken from Australia's Oceanic Viking to a detention center on nearby Bintan island off Sumatra, said Sugiyo, the center's head. They joined 22 others who disembarked last week.

The Oceanic Viking rescued the Sri Lankans last month from a wooden boat with a broken engine as it drifted in international waters near Indonesia.

Sujatmiko, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry's director for diplomatic security, told The Associated Press that Australia promised to resettle the asylum seekers. Both Sugiyo and Sujatmiko use only one name, which is common in Indonesia.

Sugiyo said he didn't know how long they would be in the detention center.

Australian Immigration Minister Chris Evans said the asylum seekers were given no guarantee of resettlement in Australia, however. He said they could be resettled in Canada, New Zealand or a Scandinavian nation.

"They will be offered resettlement in resettlement countries," he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio on Thursday. "There's no guarantee they will come to Australia — that was never part of the offer."

Indonesia has become a major transit point for an increasing number of asylum seekers from war-torn countries like Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq who slip through on their way to Australia.

Indonesia has limited resources and struggles to deal with new arrivals with the assistance of international organizations.

Indonesia, which is not a signatory to the United Nations convention on refugees, is considering deporting about 250 Sri Lankans who arrived on another boat in October. They too were trying to get to Australia.

© Associated Press

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