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Asylum Seekers in Hunger Strike on Norwegian Ship - 2001-08-28

Hundreds of asylum seekers aboard a Norwegian cargo ship in the Indian Ocean have gone on hunger strikes - some for a second day - to protest Australia's refusal to allow them entry. There appears to be no quick resolution to the standoff.

The Norwegian cargo ship Tampa has been stranded about 20 kilometers from the remote Australian outpost of Christmas Island since Monday. The ship was forced to go there after rescuing 438 refugees from a sinking Indonesian ferry late Sunday. The ferry had been illegally transporting them from Indonesia to Australia.

But once the ship neared Christmas Island, the Australian government refused to give the ship permission to berth. The asylum seekers, who are mostly from Afghanistan, are the latest in a steady flow of illegal immigrants to head for Australia in the hope of claiming refugee status.

Australia's Prime Minister John Howard insists Indonesia must bear responsibility. "We have to understand the long-term consequences of creating a situation where, for practical purposes, we lose control of our capacity to determine who comes to this country and in what circumstances," said Mr. Howard.

A spokesman for the Norwegian shipping company says the ship is ill-equipped to survive an ocean voyage with so many people on board. The closest Indonesian port is on the island of Java 350 kilometers away.

Many of the illegal immigrants are said to be in poor health, suffering from diarrhea, scabies and stomach problems.

Although Australia is refusing to allow the ship to dock, the country has begun ferrying troops and medical supplies to the ship. But Australia's Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock says he remains skeptical that the asylum seekers are in desperate need of help, saying "there is a lot of exaggeration by people who are trying to put the captain and others under duress. The fact that this boat came to the waters adjacent to Christmas Island was as a result of what in other circumstances we'd call piracy."

The refugees say they will continue their hunger strike until Australia lets them in.