4) Controversy over Sri Lankan Asylum Seekers’ Resettlement

By: Stacy Larson
Pace International Law Review, Junior Associate

Since January of this year, 39 boats with 1,890 Sri Lankans have arrived in Australian waters. Australia’s immigration detention center on remote Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean is currently over its capacity with 1,151 people having refugee claims assessed.  Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has strongly defended his border protection policies despite a decline in approval ratings, and said the influx of boats is due to the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka.  Critics say softer laws introduced by his center-left government have encouraged the new wave of arrivals.  However, the government said it is the violence in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka which is fueling human trafficking operations in Asia; the government avers that the threat of human trafficking is what has also sparked an increase in arrivals of asylum seekers in recent months.


In October, Australia rescued 78 Sri Lankans in international waters inside Indonesia’s search and rescue zone.  The Sri Lankan asylum seekers left the shores of Indonesia in a rickety boat and had been trying to reach Christmas Island.  Indonesia has become a major transit point for an increasing number of asylum seekers from war-torn countries like Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq who slip through on their way to Australia.  Indonesia has limited resources and struggles to deal with new arrivals with the assistance of international organizations. Indonesia is not a signatory to the United Nations convention on refugees.


According to Stephen Fielding, an independent in the Canberra Parliament, asylum seekers “hijacked” the Oceanic Viking, an Australian Navy vessel, and had been refusing to disembark the ship because they want the vessel to sail to Australia.  Fielding says that some of the refugees do not have legitimate asylum claims.  Even those who have legitimate claims need to wait their turn to have their claims processed and not make demands.  The noted overcrowding of the Christmas Island has led to violent outbreaks.  On November 19, twenty-two Sri Lankan men disembarked the ship.  By November 21, the remaining 56 had disembarked.  In exchange for disembarkment, the government promised to process their claims and have the asylees resettled within 12 weeks.


Sujatmiko, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry’s director for diplomatic security, told The
Associated Press that Australia promised to resettle the asylum seekers.  Sujatmiko uses only one name, which is common in Indonesia.  However, Australian Immigration Minister Chris Evans said the asylum seekers were given no guarantee of resettlement in Australia and could be resettled in Canada, New Zealand or a Scandinavian nation.  “They will be offered resettlement in resettlement countries,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio on Thursday.  “There’s no guarantee they will come to Australia — that was never part of the offer.”

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