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Tuesday, 28 August, 2001, 21:45 GMT 22:45 UK
Australia is refugees' goal
Afghan refugees pack the deck of the Norwegian cargo ship
International law is unclear on the refugees' plight
Little is known about how the asylum seekers reached Indonesia and boarded a ferry but what is clear is their preference for a Western host. BBC Diplomatic Correspondent Bridget Kendall reports.

As the Afghan refugees continue to swelter on deck in the tropical heat of the Indian Ocean, the international row over their future seems no closer to being resolved.

The Norwegian cargo ship
Australia asked the Norwegian ship to help

Rescued from a sinking Indonesian ferry by a Norwegian cargo ship responding to an Australian request to help them, it is by no means certain who now bears responsibility.

Australia says it is up to Indonesia and Norway.

Indonesia says it cannot and will not help, and Norway insists it is Australia that offers the nearest port and also carries an obligation to help them.

Even United Nations officials admit international law on the subject is ambiguous.

It is Australia, however, that is the asylum seekers' preferred destination and it is Australia that is under the most international pressure.

Precedent feared

But times have changed since the Australians welcomed thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodian boat people in the 1970s and 80s.

Many countries fear setting a precedent for asylum seekers.

And Afghans make up one of the largest refugee populations in the world, desperate after decades of war and one of the worst droughts in living memory.

Millions have already fled the oppressive regime of the ruling Taleban.

But increasingly, the rest of the world is reluctant to receive them.

See also:

28 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
UN pressure over refugee ship
27 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Tampa captain's tale of woe
13 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia condemns vigilantes
25 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia may take fewer refugees
05 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia's detention camps criticised
31 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia's migrant policy under fire
12 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
Boost for anti-immigrant party
22 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Immigrants riot in Australian camp
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