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Issue #1436      18 November 2009

The Oceanic Viking:Saga turns to bitter farce

As The Guardian went to press 22 of the asylum seekers on the vessel Oceanic Viking had disembarked and been transferred to a detention centre at Tanjung Pinang on the Indonesian island of Bintan. The standoff over the fate of the Sri Lankan asylum seekers, who were rescued by the Australian Navy but had all refused to be dumped in Indonesia, has now entered its fifth week.

The asylum seekers were transferred to the customs vessel Oceanic Viking, which under a hasty agreement between the Australian and Indonesian governments, attempted to have them disembark at Tanjung Pinang where the vessel is moored, rather than taking them to mainland Australia or Christmas Island.

However, the asylum seekers, many of whom had already been detained in Indonesia, refused to leave the ship. The Rudd government has now offered the 22 and the remaining 56 still on board speedy processing of their applications for asylum and to resettle them in Australia within 12 weeks from the time of disembarkation if they are found to be genuine refugees.

Those remaining on board are suspicious of false promises and aghast at the prospect of having to return to the Indonesian immigration detention centre. Conditions there are said to be appalling. Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees, and detainees may be held for years on end. They have no right to work, to send their children to school or to reunite with their families.

Someone else’s problem

Speaking on ABC TV’s 7.30 Report last week, the Minister for Immigration Chris Evans referred to the group’s rescue as the sole reason for the Rudd government’s attempt to land them in Indonesia. He doggedly refused to consider transporting them to Christmas Island, despite the fact that another rescued group was taken there two weeks ago.

The government is investigating sending them to another nation – that is, any nation other than Australia. Eight years ago New Zealand accepted the refugees who had been rescued by the container ship the Tampa, which on the orders of the former Howard government was boarded by Australian troops and prevented from docking on our sacred shores. (Former foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer recently admitted that the Howard government had ordered the Australian Navy to board refugee vessels that had entered our marine territory and tow them back into international waters).

However, this time the conservative New Zealand government refused to accept the Sri Lankans, citing fictitious “queue jumping”, “sending the wrong messages” and other spurious reasons beloved by the former Howard regime. The Rudd government is also said to have approached the Philippines government, but with no success.

The Australian solution

The Indonesian government has now declared that it will not permit the Oceanic Viking to remain at its present anchorage off the Indonesian island of Bintan, and an Indonesian navy vessel has been stationed within sight of it.

Last week, referring to the Oceanic Viking’s presence, the Indonesian army’s Rear Marshal Tamboen commented bitterly, “It creates so much harm to us because we must do work that is not on our planned agenda, namely guarding an uninvited guest. It is harming our sovereignty.”

He also questioned why the Rudd government didn’t simply take the asylum seekers straight to the Australian mainland: “If humanity is really the issue, why didn’t they (the Australian government) help the Sri Lankans within their own borders?” he demanded.

And there’s the rub. The immigration policies put in place by the Howard government, most of which have been retained by the Rudd government, were blatantly intended to discriminate against asylum seekers who arrive by sea, by preventing them from gaining access to Australian territory, or by dumping them in someone else’s backyard, as in the case of the Oceanic Viking group.

This is a politically opportunistic appeal to redneck voters. However, it is also illogical, because only a miniscule 206, or 6.5 percent of the total number of people granted asylum last year, arrived by boat. Moreover, between 85 and 98 percent of “boat people” are found to be genuine refugees, compared with about 45 percent of those who arrive by air.

It is not illegal to enter Australian territory without formal documentation. On the contrary, the excision of Australia’s off-shore islands, which prevents asylum seekers who arrive by boat from gaining access to legal services which other asylum seekers enjoy, is itself illegal because the United Nations refugee convention, to which Australia is a signatory, forbids legal excision.

Taking the plunge

One improvement that is emerging from the Ocean Viking disgrace is the proposal to assist asylum seekers from Sri Lanka to emigrate to Australia, or to some other acceptable destination. This has the potential to reduce the numbers who resort to such dangerous voyages, the consequences of which are often disastrous. The implementation of this approach in the major centres of conflict, from which most asylum seekers originate, would be a big step towards developing a truly humane immigration policy.

The next major step would be to deal with asylum seekers on the Australian mainland. The evidence is now crystal clear that detaining those who arrive by boat on offshore islands is unnecessary, inhumane, and from the taxpayer’s viewpoint very expensive.

However, there is little evidence that the Rudd government will take the plunge. After all, the government had to be forced into making enticing overtures to the Oceanic Viking group.

Perhaps it will take another disastrous slump in the opinion polls to get them out of the political shadow of their predecessors. On the other hand, perhaps you can’t make a silk purse out of that political sow’s ear.

Next articleThe important role of the GDR

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