Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sri Lankan Refugees - Rudd's Solution Is Surrender

KEVIN RUDD'S latest solution to the dilemma posed by the Sri Lankan asylum seekers aboard the Oceanic Viking looks like abject surrender. Should these boat people accept his offer - this remains in doubt - they will be better off than if they had their way almost a month ago and been ferried to Christmas Island. If they disembark to the Indonesian island of Bintang, their processing there will be accelerated.

Thirty of the 78 asylum seekers who have already been deemed genuine refugees by the relevant United Nations agency are promised resettlement, not necessarily but probably in Australia, within six weeks. Those whose claims to protection have yet to be processed are guaranteed resettlement within 12 weeks if they are successful. Meanwhile, they will receive English lessons, help to contact their families and other support.

The problem is not that the deal is inappropriate or inhumane - indeed, something like it could and should have been offered weeks ago - but that, after so long and muddled a delay, what might have been seen as a decent humanitarian gesture now smacks of a desperate attempt by the Government to save face. The impression is that the Prime Minister, to avoid the embarrassment of allowing the Oceanic Viking's human cargo to disembark on Christmas Island, has instead made concessions under duress from a ragged boatload of castaways.

The question is whether the Sri Lankans will now overplay their hand by making unreasonable demands - demands the Australian Government could not meet without the agreement of the Indonesian authorities, who oppose putting them in community accommodation. The asylum seekers' reluctance to be housed in a detention centre is understandable - some have had distressing previous experience - but they now have a promise that their time in the new, Australian-funded one in Tanjung Pinang would be finite and relatively brief. Besides, even if the asylum seekers believe Kevin Rudd's boast that his patience is infinite, they should know the Australian public's patience, like Indonesia's, is not. They risk running out of sympathy.

Still, there are positives. One is that the Indonesian Government has now agreed to an indefinite extension of the deadline before the Oceanic Viking must leave its waters. This reduces the temptation for the asylum seekers to play a delaying game in the hope that Jakarta will leave the ship with no option but Christmas Island.

Second, diplomatic talks between Australia and Sri Lanka, particularly about increased humanitarian migration, offer some prospect of alleviating the people-smuggling problem at source. The Sydney Morning Herald Editorial

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