Australia has bluntly told a group of rescued Sri Lankan asylum-seekers they couldn’t choose their destination but didn’t rule out using force after they refused to disembark in Indonesia.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith insisted the group of 78, currently on an Australian ship, would be processed in Indonesia under a new agreement between the countries and urged patience despite an 11-day time-lag.
“When someone is rescued on the high seas in the Indonesian search and rescue area, and Indonesia and Australia agree where they should be offloaded, it’s not a matter of the choice of the asylum seekers on board where they make that claim,” he told public broadcaster ABC late on Wednesday.
“The agreement between Australia and Indonesia is an agreement that they will be processed in Indonesia. We remain confident that if we’re patient, that we can effect that in accordance with the agreement made between President (Susilo Bambang) Yudhoyono and the prime minister.”
The stand-off has raised questions about Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s “Indonesian Solution” to the asylum-seeker problem brokered with Yudhoyono after more than 30 rickety boats were stopped off Australia this year.
Intercepted nearly two weeks ago
The 78 Sri Lankans were intercepted by Australia’s navy on October 18 and transferred to an Australian customs ship after getting into trouble in international waters where Indonesia has rescue obligations.
Smith has played down reports the people-smuggling boat carrying the Sri Lankans, who come from the country’s war-ravaged north, was deliberately sabotaged to force the rescue.
Australia acknowledges handing over financial aid to help Indonesia, a major staging post for asylum-seekers, intercept and detain the refugee boats which have long been the subject of fierce domestic debate.
However, the policy has come under fire from activists who highlight the poor quality of Indonesia’s detention facilities and its failure to sign the 1951 UN refugee convention.
The Sri Lankans were first sent to a port on the main island of Java before being diverted to Bintan island, where the provincial governor initially refused to house them and said Indonesia should not be a “dumping ground.”
Force not ruled out
Smith did not rule out using force to remove the asylum-seekers but said he hoped the impasse could be resolved in a “civilised” way.
“I’ve said on a number of occasions in recent days that I remain hopeful that this can be done in a civilised and dignified way,” said Smith, when asked about the use of force.
He added that Australia had no deadline in dealing with the row, and said a short-lived hunger strike by male passengers was now over.
“Just like my Indonesian counterpart, I’m not proposing to put a timeline or deadline on that… we have an abundance of patience in how to deal with this issue,” he told Sky News on Thursday.
The incident follows a similar row over a group of 250 Sri Lankans who refused to leave their boat, threatening to blow it up and going on a brief hunger-strike, after being stopped by Indonesia at Australia’s request.
Prime Minister Rudd has also denied accusations that “terrorists” were on board asylum boats headed for Australia.