Australia at sea in refugee debate

Would-be refugees remain in the Indian Ocean, denied entry to Australia and Indonesia.

Compared with the millions who flow across international borders fleeing persecution or war, 438 people on board a Norwegian freighter in the Indian Ocean off Australia's coast constitute barely a trickle.

But this group of refugees - reportedly from Afghanistan and Iraq - is now testing a nation that has long wrestled with its immigration policies, particularly on refugees and asylum seekers.

Throughout the 1970s and '80s, Australia allowed entry to thousands of people who arrived by boat from Indochina [mainly Vietnam and Cambodia].

In the past two years, the government reports, more than 9,000 people have entered Australia illegally - 1,500 in the past two weeks.

Today, Australia's immigration dilemma hits home as the ship of would-be refugees remains in its Indian Ocean backyard. Indonesia says it will not take them in. Norway and Afghanistan's ruling Taliban are asking Australia to do so.

The Australian government says no: since the refugees were rescued in international waters, they should have been taken to the closest port, in Indonesia.

On Sunday, the captain of a Norwegian-registered ship, the Tampa, issued a distress call soon after rescuing the people from a sinking fishing vessel. When he tried to take them to nearby Indonesia, some reportedly rebelled and threatened to jump overboard. Australia sent military doctors and medical supplies to the vessel after the ship's call.

As of yesterday, Australia's Prime Minister John Howard had ordered Special Air Service troops to seize control of the Norwegian-registered vessel, the Tampa, after it strayed into Australian waters off Christmas Island - an Australian territory - to try to land the refugees.

But the Howard government claims the refugees want to short-cut the official channels for seeking asylum. "If the view becomes entrenched around the world that it's easy to get into this country, we will have an enormous problem," Mr. Howard said yesterday. "We will have an unbelievable problem trying to control our borders."

Australia currently admits about 12,000 refugees a year, selected mainly from camps around the world, in consultation with the United Nations. Also, there are those termed "illegal" arrivals - about 4,200 a year - who seek asylum when they disembark either from airplanes or, increasingly, from unsafe boats.

Refugee advocates say that number pales alongside the 250,000 Burmese who crossed into Bangladesh in the mid-1990s, the 4 million Angolans who live in camps in Mozambique, the 6 million in Pakistan or Iran, or even the 70,000 who last year sought asylum in the United Kingdom.

"This situation, with barely 400 people on a boat, is making us the laughing stock of the world," says David Bitel, president of the Refugee Council of Australia, an advocacy group in Sydney.

According to Nick Poynder, a Sydney-based lawyer who represents refugees seeking asylum in Australia, between 80 and 90 percent of those aboard the Tampa - if they are from Afghanistan and Iraq - would probably win refugee status. "They have a very strong claim to such status, considering the highly oppressive nature of those countries."

That point is echoed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees regional director in Pakistan, Yusuf Hassan. He says the 438 people aboard the Tampa are part of the 6.2 million refugees who have fled Afghanistan since 1979, when the former Soviet Union invaded the country.

That surge has intensified since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in 1996. "The war is now exacerbated by famine," Hassan told the Monitor from Islamabad. "What is frightening is that the world has acknowledged the situation but there appears to be indifference."

While Australia's current refugee policy is criticized within the legal and human rights communities, its line against "illegal" arrivals appears to be playing well with the public.

About 70 percent of callers to talk radio, a major source of daytime entertainment in Australia, support the government's position on the Tampa passengers, according to the media monitoring agency, Rehame.

Australia's opposition Labor Party, is also backing the government in this case. Analysts say that position is political - influenced by the prospect of national elections later this year.

However, the country's government-funded human rights commissioner disagrees, appealing for Australia to accept the refugees. Meanwhile, in Melbourne, protesters yesterday demonstrated against the raid on the freighter.

Australia has "absolutely become meaner" in its treatment of refugees, says Linda Bartolomei, a researcher at the independent Center for Refugee Research at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Until the early1990s, it was a haven for people fleeing Indochina and former communist-bloc countries.

Now, she adds, all asylum seekers who arrive in Australia without permission are automatically detained until their refugee status is determined. Ms. Bartolomei says that is not done in most other developed nations.

But some Australian refugee-relief efforts have won broad public support in recent years. These have involved small numbers of people staying temporarily.

In May 1999, after NATO's bombing of Yugoslav forces in Kosovo, about 400 Kosovars were allowed into Australia for up to 12 months. Later that year, after Indonesian militias razed most of East Timor after an independence ballot, about 1500 East Timorese were also settled briefly.

"If a government tries to engender goodwill," said Bitel, "as we did with the Kovars and the East Timorese, rather than stirring up paranoia, then the community will welcome people in need."

Material from the wire services was used in this report.

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