Timor solution for refugee ship flagged
By staff and wires
CHRISTMAS ISLAND, Australian Territory -- The fledgling nation of East Timor is emerging as possible solution for the impasse over 460 asylum seekers currently stranded on a Norwegian cargo ship in the Indian Ocean.
The United Nations' Administration in East Timor has confirmed it is discussing the request from Australia and is considering the plan but would not indicate its likely decision.
Bernard Kablut, of the United Nation's High Commission for Refugees, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation East Timor could easily cope with the 460 on Tampa because East Timor is equipped to manage an influx of up to 15,000 people.
It is understood Australia would be prepared to meet the costs of East Timor processing the asylum seekers.
Although East Timor is currently undergoing its first election, the UN has control until next year.
The Prime Minister of Australia John Howard told CNN that Australia did not want to have the asylum seekers strranded on the ship any longer than necessary.
But he said there was a strong view in Australia that the country needed to take firmer measures to prevent an increasing number of illegal immigrants arriving on Australian shores.
He said he believed there were up to 5,000 more asylum seekers currently in Indonesia waiting to set sail for Australia.
There needed to be a better international effort to reduce the level of people smuggling and defended Australia's action in banning the Norwegian ship from entering its waters, he said.
"There has to be a combined international effort involving the United Nations and the UN High Commission for refugees," Howard said, adding that Australia was very exposed to the problem of people smuggling because of its large, exposed borders.
Meanwhile Indonesia's military says it is ready to enforce its government ban on a Norwegian freighter carrying asylum seekers from entering Indonesian waters.
If the ship leaves Australian territory and enters Indonesian waters, Jakarta says its navy is ready to take action, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports.
Prime Minister Howard has rung Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri to discuss the issue but his call, so far, has not been returned and the Indonesian leader is yet to comment about the international impasse.
International pressure is mounting on Australia to resolve a standoff which has left more than 400 asylum seekers stranded on the cargo ship in the Indian Ocean for five days now.
Howard says however that he does not think the standoff will be resolved in the next 24 hours.
The resolution of the issue now revolves around Australia, Indonesia and Norway negotiating a face-saving compromise.
The United States, the United Nations and international humanitarian organizations have all urged a quick resolution of the issue which threatens to turn into a diplomatic and political nightmare for the Australian Government.
"Our concern in this kind of case would be for the safety and the welfare for the people on board the vessel," U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said at a briefing.
"We would hope that the governments involved -- that would be Australia, Norway and Indonesia -- would cooperate to resolve the issue."
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, said Thursday that Australia had a responsibility to accept the refugees.
"The convention (on refugees) provides that they should be accepted at the nearest port and I think the issue is a very serious one," Robinson said while in Durban, South Africa, for a conference on racism.
Elsewhere, the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights Leagues has appealed to the Australian Government to immediately grant at least temporary asylum to the stranded refugees.
In a letter to Prime Minister Howard, the federation expressed its "grave concern" over the situation.
"Despite the legal difficulties posed by their situation ... simple humanitarian considerations fully justify that they be immediately granted at least temporary asylum," the federation said.
The Norwegian ship is still in Australian waters, floating five nautical miles off the coast of Christmas Island, an Australian territory 350 km (217 miles) south of Indonesia 2,000 km from the Australian mainland.
The Tampa is only equipped to handle a crew of about 50, and the refugees were trying to escape the hot tropical temperatures and harsh sunlight in the area by sitting under tarpaulins strapped between huge containers on the deck.
Still in control
The captain of the Tampa has so far refused Australia's demand to sail it to international waters, and reports in Australian media suggest he is still in control of the vessel.
The refugee stand-off comes at a delicate time for Australia's prime minister who faces a federal election later this year.
The Government has come under attack in recent months over its refugee policy and many voters are increasingly unhappy about the large sums of money spent on housing and caring for thousands of asylum seekers that arrive in Australia each year.
Howard rejected the suggestion the tough stance had anything to do with the upcoming election, saying Australia was trying to balance all its considerations in dealing with the issue of illegal immigration.
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