Agreement reached on stranded asylum seekers
CHRISTMAS ISLAND, Australia (CNN) -- Australia has reached agreement with New Zealand and Nauru to process 460 asylum seekers stranded aboard a Norwegian freighter in Australian waters.
Of the mostly Afghan asylum seekers, 150 will be processed by New Zealand and the remainder by the Pacific island nation of Nauru before they are resettled in several countries, including Australia, the Australian Prime Minister John Howard said.
The agreement breaks a six-day diplomatic impasse between Australia, Indonesia and Norway over the fate of the asylum seekers after the Australian government refused to allow the freighter, the MV Tampa, to enter Australian waters and dock at Christmas Island, an Australian territory.
Speaking at a news conference Saturday, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said the agreement reinforced his refusal to allow the asylum seekers to set foot on Australian territory.
"I should emphasize that this agreement and this potential solution to this very difficult issue does not involve the people being taken on to Christmas Island or on to Australian territory or any part of the Australian mainland," Howard said.
"That has been quite fundamental to the government's position and we have maintained that and we intend to maintain that."
In a statement, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, said of the 150 asylum seekers, those found to be genuine refugees would be allowed to resettle in New Zealand as part of its annual refugee quota.
Those processed in Nauru and found to be genuine refugees will be resettled elsewhere, including Australia.
"New Zealand will be working closely with Australia and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to arrange transshipment of the refugees to New Zealand," Clark said.
It remains unclear how or where exactly the asylum seekers would be processed, as the Tampa is in no condition to transport them to New Zealand or Nauru.
"We're absolutely delighted to hear the news, obviously we are concerned about how we disembark these people and the issues that now have to be addressed relative to getting them off the vessel," the Australian representative of Wallenius Wilhelmsen, the Tampa's operator, told The Associated Press.
UN plan rejected
The agreement follows Australia's rejection of a plan proposed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at a meeting in Geneva on Friday that called for the asylum seekers to be allowed to temporarily disembark on Christmas Island.
Howard said he informed the UNHCR of the plan after speaking with Clark and Nauru president Rene Harris.
The MV Tampa 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.
Australian troops are aboard the ship and aid and medical supplies have been sent to the vessel.
Norway's ambassador to Australia, Ove Thorsheim, visited the freighter Friday and later told reporters the refugees were determined to resettle in Australia.
"I am happy to say that the condition of the rescued people is as good as it can be under the circumstances," Thorsheim said.
"They are very tired. They have been on the run from one month up to eight months," he said. "They are very determined to come to Australia. Nowhere else will do."
Pressure had been mounting on the Australian government to resolve the issue with aid groups and international agencies criticizing the government's stance.
Howard told CNN on Friday that Australia -- a popular destination for asylum seekers -- did not want to have the asylum seekers stranded 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.
That attitude was shared by New Zealand on Friday.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said the government welcomed the "internationalization" of the problem and stressed that it was "urgent" that Australia, Indonesia and international organizations dealt with the wider problem and reached an agreement about how to deal with asylum seekers that reach Indonesia.
"I stress that New Zealand wants to ensure that there is a maximum discouragement of the practice of smuggling and trafficking people," she said.
|Back to the top|