November 12, 2009 / 12:42 AM / 10 years ago

Australia offers deal to end boatpeople standoff

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia offered quick resettlement to 78 asylum seekers on a customs ship anchored off Indonesia on Thursday in a bid to end a four-week standoff that has dented Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s approval rating.

Sri Lankan refugees look out from the Australian coast guard vessel Oceanic Viking anchored in Bintan November 6, 2009. Australia offered quick resettlement to 78 asylum seekers on a customs ship anchored off Indonesia on Thursday in a bid to end a four-week standoff that has dented Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's approval rating. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash

Polls show Australians want Rudd to resolve the impasse with the 78 Sri Lankans, who refuse to leave the Australian customs ship Oceanic Viking in Indonesia and instead want to be taken to Australia to have refugee claims processed.

Australian officials have written to the asylum seekers and promised to resettle them within four weeks if they are found to have genuine refugee claims. “We’re hopeful that this will be finalised soon,” Immigration Minister Chris Evans told Australian radio.

Australia will also help those on board the patrol ship to lodge refugee claims through the United Nations, as long as they remain in a refugee camp in Indonesia during the process.

Indonesia’s influential military has criticised a deal between Jakarta and Canberra to disembark the Sri Lankans in Indonesia in exchange for more aid.

Two opinion polls on Monday added pressure on Rudd to resolve the standoff and take a firmer stance with asylum seekers, as a new wave of boats this year re-ignited a divisive political debate about immigration and refugee policies.

A Nielsen poll found the issue had hurt Rudd, with his disapproval rating rising five percentage points in the space of a month to 28 percent. A Newspoll found 53 percent believed Rudd was doing a bad job on border security.

Since January, 39 boats with 1,890 people have arrived in Australian waters. Australia’s immigration detention centre on remote Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean is full with 1,151 people having refugee claims assessed.

Rudd has strongly defended his border protection policies and said the influx of boats is due to the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka. But critics say softer laws introduced by his centre-left government have encouraged the new wave of arrivals.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith flew to Sri Lanka for talks on the flow of refugees on Monday.

The Age newspaper on Thursday said Australia was considering allowing more displaced Sri Lankans to migrate to Australia legally in a bid to reduce incentives for people smuggling.

(Reporting by James Grubel; Editing by Jerry Norton)

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