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Sri Lankans won’t set foot in Australia – ABC News

[ABC, Wednesday, 28 October 2009 09:01 No Comment]

The Australian Customs vessel Oceanic Viking has not been allowed to dock. (Reuters: Vivek Prakash, file photo) Foreign Minister Stephen Smith cannot say when the stand-off between Australia and Indonesia over 78 asylum seekers will be resolved but he is adamant they will not be brought to Australia.

The Sri Lankan asylum seekers are now spending their 10th day aboard the Australian Customs ship the Oceanic Viking, as the deal between the two countries for Indonesia to take the group appears to be unravelling.

After speaking with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd last week, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has agreed to take the group.

But local politicians at the island where the asylum seekers are to be held are resisting efforts to bring them to shore.

The asylum seekers have also indicated they will not leave the Oceanic Viking voluntarily and are refusing identity and medical checks.

Mr Smith has acknowledged that negotiations between local and Australian officials may take "some time" but he says the asylum seekers will be taken to Indonesian soil.

"The President has already made that decision," he told AM.

"There’s an agreement between Australia and the Government of Indonesia that the people who were rescued in the open seas will go to Indonesia and be processed by the United National High Commission for Refugees in Indonesia."

"If it takes more time, so be it."

The 78 asylum seekers, 10 of whom are women and children, are due to be taken to an Australian-funded detention centre on the Island of Bintan, where some detainees have alleged they have been beaten by guards.

The men of the group staged a hunger strike for several days in protest against being taken to Indonesia, but Mr Smith says they have no choice about where they claim asylum.

"They were picked up on the high seas. They were rescued on the high seas – it’s not their choice," he said.

"I make this point advisedly – we want them to cooperate but how they disembark from the Oceanic Viking in the end will be a matter between Indonesian officials, Australian officials and the Sri Lankans."

Mr Smith says he believes local officials will not use force to get the asylum seekers off the ship.

Policy under fire

Mr Rudd is attracting criticism from the Opposition, the Greens and from within his own ranks over the continuing stand-off and the Government’s border protection policies.

Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull has accused Mr Rudd of a "colossal policy failure".

"Mr Rudd’s policy seems to be dispatching the asylum seekers into conditions in Indonesia which in many cases are far from satisfactory, so that’s hardly generous or humane," he said.

"The duty now for Mr Rudd is to come into the Parliament and explain himself – that’s what he has to do today."

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young says the Government’s handling of those on board the Oceanic Viking has been "chaotic".

"The Prime Minister refuses to answer any questions in relation to the Oceanic Viking and that’s because it’s out of his control and his hands," she said.

In Parliament yesterday Mr Rudd would not detail what involvement he had in negotiations over the continuing impasse, saying any diplomatic discussions were confidential.

But Labor backbencher Julia Irwin says the group should be allowed into Australia if they are genuine refugees.

"These are people who are trying to come to Australia and I think it’s absolutely disgusting that we are not sitting down with the Opposition in a bipartisan way," she said.

And Australian Workers Union Secretary Paul Howes, who last week criticised Mr Rudd’s use of language in the debate, has now called on him to show more leadership.

He also says the asylum seekers should be brought to Christmas Island.

"Get them in, process them, if they’re refugees give them protection, if they’re not send them back," he said.

[Full Coverage]

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