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Refugee Stand-Off Ends in Indonesia


Sri Lankan asylum seekers transferred to an Australian-funded detention facility on Bintan island and are promised that if recognized as refugees they will be resettled within three months

After a month of negotiations a group of Sri Lankan asylum seekers has left an Australian boat and gone ashore in Indonesia. But, they will not remain in the country long. As an inducement to leave the ship, they were promised that if recognized as refugees they will be resettled within three months.

A rickety boat carrying would-be refugees from Sri Lanka was first spotted a month ago, heading toward Australia. An Australian customs vessel picked them up in Indonesian waters after their boat ran into trouble.

In the past, such migrants were often taken directly to Australia, but a political storm over a surge in refugee arrivals this year forced the Canberra government to send the boat to an Indonesian port. There, the passengers refused to go ashore.

On Wednesday, Indonesia confirmed that all 78 had left the ship, the Oceanic Viking, and had been transferred to an Australian-funded detention facility on Bintan island.

The immigration spokesman at Indonesia's Foreign Ministry, Sujatmiko, says the 10 women and children on the boat will be housed separately in the camp, which is surrounded by barbed wire.

"This is the request from Australia that we are going to treat women and children separately. We are going to give the children a much better place than here," he said.

The group agreed to disembark after Australia promised they would wait no more than three months to be resettled should their asylum claims be recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The UNHCR already has declared some refugees. Australia says their resettlement claims will be decided within six weeks. The others will be processed within 12 weeks.

Some of the passengers have been in Indonesia several years. Recognized asylum seekers can spend as long as 10 years in Indonesia waiting to permanently resettle, but they can not work or leave the country while they wait.

Australian opposition politicians are slamming the government's decision to negotiate with the Sri Lankans. Speaking to Fairfax Radio, Liberal Party member Tony Abbott said deal-making would only encourage more asylum seekers.

"Look they've got a magic carpet ride into Australia because they effectively hijacked an Australian vessel and this is a complete fiasco, a catastrophe for our border protection, and it sends all the wrong messages to people smugglers and the people who might want to use people smugglers," said Abbott.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says no deals were made.

But the news about the refugees on the Oceanic Viking inspired more than 250 Sri Lankans aboard an Indonesian vessel at a port in West Java. They also refuse to disembark until their passage to Australia or another country is guaranteed.

A man calling himself Alex has become their spokesman.

"We are kind of struggling everyday with basic needs of life and medication and stuff. We are deprived of everything at the moment, however, those people on the Oceanic Viking have gotten everything they needed from the Australian government," he said.

Alex says many among his crew are also recognized refugees, and they do not want to wait any longer for resettlement.

"Our only request right now is to be treated equally and fairly as the 78 passengers who were on the Oceanic Viking," continued Alex. "We are refugees as well as them and we are asylum seekers as well as them. There are people on that boat who had UNHCR cards and there are people on this boat. There is 137 people who were registered with the UNHCR on our boat itself. We have the same criteria and the same needs as those 78 people. The only difference was is that they were on an Australian vessel."

This year, the number of boats smuggling would-be refugees into Australia has surged. The opposition say that is because Mr. Rudd has relaxed some rules on detaining migrants who enter illegally. The government, however, says it is because of conflicts in countries such as Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mr. Rudd and Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono have discussed the issue and last month, Mr. Rudd proposed a so-called Indonesia solution to the influx of refugees. This involves Australia funding facilities to house and process people in Indonesia.

But Sujatmiko at the Indonesian Foreign Ministry says the Oceanic Viking situation will not be repeated.

"This is, I think I should emphasize, this the first and the last," he said. "We will not entertain this kind of incident. I think this is really a very complicated issue and we have to make sure that in the future that we settle this issue very carefully between Indonesia and Australia."

For now it seems the human tide making its way across the Indian Ocean will not stop. At least four boats have been intercepted in or near Australian waters in the last week.