Assylum seekers aboard ship face deteriorating health
SYDNEY, Aug. 28 (Kyodo) - By: Christine Tjandraningsih and Jackie Woods
Hundreds of asylum seekers on board a Norwegian freighter stranded off the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island are facing deteriorating health and sanitary conditions and should be disembarked immediately, the ship's operators said Tuesday.
Peter Dexter, Oceania director for the shipping company Wallenius Wilhelmsen Lines, said the 348 asylum seekers, rescued from a sinking Indonesian fishing vessel Sunday night, were suffering varying degrees of ill health.
''The problem is food, water and medical supplies, it's not something that the ship can sit out there for any extended period of time,'' he told reporters in Sydney. ''We need support as far as the ship is concerned. It just can not go on.''
The asylum seekers were sleeping on the open deck with no shelter, while the 27 crew members had constructed crude sanitary facilities in empty containers, Dexter said.
The freighter Tampa arrived at Christmas Island on Monday after responding to a request for emergency assistance for the Indonesian boat from Australian coastal surveillance authorities.
However, shortly after its arrival, the Australian government said it would not be granted entry to Australian territory and that the asylum seekers should be returned to Indonesia.
Dexter said it was unrealistic and dangerous to expect the Tampa to make the journey to Indonesia with the asylum seekers on board, even if Indonesia decided to accept them.
''The position that the ship is in, it would not receive approval to leave where it is with the 438 people, so obviously a concern for us is getting those people off the ship at the appropriate place,'' Dexter said.
The Tampa had been headed for Singapore with a full load of export produce from Australia, mainly nonperishable food.
The standoff was costing the company at least US$30,000 per day, plus the cost of not delivering the cargo, Dexter said.
The Australian government was preparing to deliver food and medical assistance to the Tampa on Tuesday, and has dispatched a navy vessel to the area from Perth.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has called for a rapid resolution of the situation and for the asylum seekers' claims to be given a fair hearing.
In a statement, the UNHCR's regional office said Australia should transfer anyone in need of urgent medical attention to the mainland for treatment, ahead of a negotiated outcome among the three governments involved.
''The UNHCR urges the governments of Australia, Norway and Indonesia to enter into a dialogue and to address the issues on a trilateral basis as soon as possible. The UNHCR is concerned at the possibility of the situation becoming protracted, having potentially negative impact upon refugees and asylum seekers,'' it said.
The Tampa's captain, Arne Rinnan, told Australian radio the asylum seekers had pressured the ship's crew into taking them to Christmas Island by threatening them with violence and had threatened to jump overboard if the ship returned to Indonesia.
In Jakarta on Tuesday, the Indonesian government first indicated it may accept the refugees, then refused them entry.
''If there is no other choice...for humanitarian reasons we may allow them to enter our territory before being legally processed,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Sulaiman Abdulmanan told Kyodo News on Tuesday, but later the country's foreign minister reversed that stand.
''Indonesia is not in any way responsible, simply because they are under good protection of the Norwegian ship and will be under Norwegian law,'' Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda told reporters.
''And in fact, the destination...they are on board a ship to go to Australia. So let (Australia) deal with it. Indonesia, no matter of what, is not involved. For that matter, I don't think it is in our interest to land the ship in Indonesia,'' he said.
Australian Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock told Nine Network Television of Australia the Tampa should have returned the passengers to Indonesia rather than bring them to Christmas Island, saying the vessel foundered in an area in which Indonesia has responsibility for search and rescue.
But Sulaiman disputed Australia's claim. ''We don't even know when they left and where they will go,'' he said.
Indonesia has between 4,000 and 5,000 illegal immigrants, mostly on Sumatra Island, Sulaiman said, adding, ''They have placed a financial burden on us, but every time we want to return them to their countries, they threaten to commit suicide.''
Wallenius Wilhelmsen Lines said the boat people comprise 369 men, 26 women, including two who are pregnant, and 43 children. All claim to be from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
The passengers had been traveling for eight to 10 days before being rescued and some are suffering from serious health problems including dehydration and suspected broken limbs, the company said.
Captain Rinnan said the health of the passengers was deteriorating and many had gone on a hunger strike as the standoff among the asylum seekers, Australia and Indonesia continues.
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