November 13, 2009 / 12:00 PM / 10 years ago

Some Sri Lankan asylum seekers leave Australia ship

TANJUNG PINANG, Indonesia (Reuters) - Twenty-two Sri Lankan asylum seekers voluntarily left an Australian customs ship in Indonesian waters on Friday after Canberra offered assurances of swift resettlement to end a politically sensitive standoff.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s approval rating has been dented by the impasse over the 78 ethnic Tamils, who have up until now refused to leave the Oceanic Viking customs vessel because they wanted to have their refugee claims processed.

The 22 men, wearing helmets and life jackets, were evacuated into a rubber boat before being taken by a ferry to the Tanjung Pinang immigration detention centre on Bintan island.

An Indonesian foreign ministry representative said by telephone that the Sri Lankans had voluntarily left the vessel after a guarantee from Canberra that they would be transferred to Australia in no more than four weeks.

Indonesia had given a three-month deadline for the remaining group of Sri Lankans to remain, said Sujatmiko, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

“After that it’s up to them whether they go to Australia, return home, or get assistance finding a third country. But after the deadline, we want Australia to resolve this matter,” he said.

Earlier this week, Australian officials had written to the asylum seekers and promised to resettle them within four weeks if they were found to have genuine refugee claims.

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.

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.

(Additional reporting by Olivia Rondonuwu in Jakarta; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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