Sri Lanka refugees get more time

October 30, 2009 12:00 am

, JAKARTA, Oct 30 – Indonesia on Friday gave an Australian customs boat another week to end a standoff with 78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers who are refusing to disembark on Indonesia’s Bintan island.

A deadline for the Oceanic Viking ship to leave Indonesian waters was due to expire on Friday but foreign ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said it had been extended to November 6.

Indonesia has agreed to accept the rescued Australia-bound migrants for humanitarian reasons but it will not force them to leave the Australian vessel, which has been anchored off Bintan since Monday, he said.

"We have agreed to facilitate the migrants in Indonesia temporarily. We have made a commitment to give humanitarian assistance but if they don’t want to come ashore we cannot force them," he said.

"We have shown goodwill. We tried to process them but they refused. The problem is now Australia’s."

The ethnic Tamil migrants were found by the Australian navy in Indonesia’s search and rescue zone off the Sumatran coast 12 days ago, shortly after they left Indonesia in a rickety boat bound for Australia.

Their plight became a diplomatic as well as physical standoff when the migrants refused to disembark the Australian ship or cooperate with Indonesian immigration officials.

Faizasyah said Jakarta was hoping the Sri Lankan government would get involved to try to end the standoff, the second of its kind this month.

Another 255 Sri Lankans are refusing to leave their boat in West Java, after being intercepted on their way to Australia by the Indonesian navy.

Australia says the 78 migrants on the Oceanic Viking are Indonesia’s responsibility according to the laws of the sea.

Indonesia however says they cannot be forced off the ship or enter Indonesia without being interviewed by immigration officials.

Faizasyah also rejected any notion of an "Indonesian Solution" — as it has been dubbed in Australia — to Australia’s problem with surging numbers of migrant boat arrivals.

"If there is such a thing as an ‘Indonesian Solution’, why can’t there be an Australian solution?" he asked reporters at a press conference.

Indonesia and Australia announced last week they had reached a "framework agreement" on dealing with a recent rash of migrant boat arrivals in Australia from Indonesia.

But Indonesia’s reluctance to acknowledge the details of any such agreement has embarrassed Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who has claimed he has the personal commitment of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Canberra has said the Australian-funded plan would boost Indonesia’s ability to crack down on people-smuggling networks, stop the boats before they leave Indonesian ports and accommodate the migrants while they are processed.

Faizasyah said the plan had "no clear structure" and would not begin to take shape until next week when Australian officials were due to visit Jakarta. He did not say which Australian officials would make the trip.

There has been a sharp increase in the number of asylum seekers reaching Australia by boat this year, overloading detention facilities and sparking a heated political battle over border protection and asylum policy.

Indonesia is not a signatory of the UN convention on refugees and there appears to be little official support for a plan which would burden it with any responsibility for Australia-bound asylum seekers.


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