Australian troops take control of refugee ship
By Jason Reed
CHRISTMAS ISLAND, Australia, Aug 29 (Reuters) - Crack troops seized control of a Norwegian freighter crammed with sick and exhausted asylum seekers on Wednesday after the ship's captain steered the vessel into Australian waters.
A defiant Australian Prime Minister said the move signalled his government's determination to crack down on a wave of asylum seekers of mostly Middle East origin, but it triggered condemnation of a country that was built on immigration.
"It remains our very strong determination not to allow this vessel or its occupants, save in excepting humanitarian circumstances clearly demonstrated, to land in Australia," Prime Minister John Howard told parliament.
International relations expert Glen Barclay from the Australian National University (ANU) told Reuters: "We are heading in the direction of a pariah state.
"Australia's position on refugees is already internationally condemned and leaving these people on board this ship, starving and on the point of suicide, will further harm our reputation."
Earlier, Australian Special Air Services (SAS) forces roared through the surf off Christmas Island in high-speed boats after the captain of the Norwegian-registered Tampa breached the 12-mile international waters limit, four days after rescuing the 434 asylum seekers from a sinking ferry.
"I am looking at it out my window and it's about five miles off and holding position. It is still in Australian territorial waters," Christmas Island harbourmaster Don O'Donnell told Reuters.
SITUATION OUT OF HAND
The ship's owners said the captain had felt the situation had got "out of hand" and he needed to move closer to the coast in the interests of his ship, crew and passengers.
Conditions on the Tampa -- a cargo vessel built to accommodate up to 40 people -- were deteriorating, they said.
Hundreds of people were crowded on the deck or taking shelter in empty containers and most of the men among the asylum seekers were on hunger strike. The ship issued distress calls overnight seeking medical help.
But Australia's Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said the captain had "acquiesced to duress" after some of the asylum seekers threatened to jump overboard.
Ignoring exhortations from aid agencies, Canberra has refused entry to the Tampa since it rescued the Afghan, Sri Lankan and Pakistani asylum seekers as they tried to make their way from Indonesia to Australia.
Indonesia and Norway have also rejected responsibility for the asylum seekers.
Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg admitted he had exchanged strong words with Howard on the subject.
"One cannot force a ship which the captain deems unfit to sail into international waters," Stoltenberg told NRK public radio. "The Australian prime minister did not agree with me."
The mid-ocean refugee stand-off has shone an international spotlight on Australia's increasingly tough stand towards illegal immigrants ahead of a general election later this year.
Australia accepts more than 10,000 refugees formally resettled each year by the United Nations. Howard's conservative government has branded boat people "queue jumpers."
ASYLUM SEEKERS MADE OUT TO BE CRIMINALS
Human rights groups criticise the government's policy of detaining all illegal immigrants in remote desert camps, and of making them out to be criminals with its rhetoric.
In fact, most of the 5,000 annual illegal immigrants are granted refugee status, and the numbers are tiny compared to the tens of thousands who try to get into European countries.
But over the past 11 days, 1,500 people have turned up along the vast northern coastline, and with reports another 900 are on their way, Australians appear to back the government's stance.
A second large group of asylum seekers trying to travel to Australia is holed up on the Indonesian island of Lombok, police and a U.N. agency said on Wednesday.
Around 150 asylum seekers mainly from Afghanistan and Iraq were staying at a government guesthouse in Mataram, a city on eastern Lombok. Police said the group had no plan to leave the island, which is next to the resort island of Bali.
Officials at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Jakarta said the group was under police guard, although police denied the asylum seekers were being held.
Howard insisted that Australia was not lacking in compassion. "No country has been more generous in the last 20 years to refugees than Australia," he said to cheers from legislators.
But Howard said Australia was increasingly concerned with the rising numbers of mainly Middle Eastern illegal immigrants that were bringing its formal refugee system to breaking point.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said her country would never turn such a ship away in similar circumstances.
"It is likely that New Zealand would escort a ship carrying such people into its waters, detain them, and work as quickly as possible to identify which among the asylum seekers were genuine refugees and which were not," Clark said in a statement.
|Back to News Archirves of 2001|
Disclaimer: This news site is mostly a compilation of publicly accessible articles on the Web in the form of a link or saved news item. The news articles and commentaries/editorials are protected under international copyright laws. All credit goes to the original respective source(s).