Afghan refugees: stand-off persists

SINGAPORE, AUG. 30. The stand-off on board the Norwegian vessel, now believed to be carrying about 460 refugees, continued today with Australia remaining unmoved by international concerns that the asylum-seekers be allowed to land on Christmas Island.

The Tampa Captain has refused to follow Australian orders to return to international waters and remains a few kilometres off Christmas Island.

A controversial Bill to arm the Australian Government with retrospective powers to forcibly remove the Tampa has fallen through with the Opposition Labour party, in a belated display of independence, refusing to support the Liberal coalition.

After sending crack commandos to board the Tampa yesterday, the Howard Government appears to have few ideas about how to resolve the situation. While the commandos are in control of the ship, the Captain has shown no inclination to follow orders to move the ship from Australian waters.

Interestingly, while the Howard Government wants Indonesia to accept the refugees, the Australian Prime Minister, Mr. John Howard, has not been able to contact the Indonesian President, Ms. Megawati Sukarnoputri.

In the meantime, Mr. Peter Dexter, regional director for Wallenius Wilhelmsen, the shipping line which owns the Tampa, has said that the ship was in no condition to sail.

``The vessel is uncertified to carry what is now 450 to 460 survivors, so the Captain is unable to move the ship....Clearly, the situation that the vessel is in at this point of time is that the vessel is not seaworthy to carry 450- odd survivors anywhere,'' Mr. Dexter said. In a sign that the Government was running out of ideas, the Prime Minister, Mr. John Howard, spoke to the U.N. Secretary-General, Mr. Kofi Annan on the crisis.

``I briefed him (Mr. Annan) on discussions which have been under way with a number of countries. Clearly, this is an issue that has to be dealt within both a border-protection way and also a diplomatic way,'' he said. According to Mr. Howard, the U.N. had an over-arching responsibility for refugee matters.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Mary Robinson, said Australia should allow the Tampa to dock at Christmas Island.

Separately, Amnesty International, too, stated that Australia had an international obligation to allow the refugees to disembark and apply for asylum.