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Friday, 31 August, 2001, 02:49 GMT 03:49 UK
Australia defiant in refugee standoff
Refugees on the Tampa
Many refugees have complained of sickness
Diplomatic pressure is mounting on Australia, Indonesia and Norway to resolve the fate of hundreds of asylum-seekers stranded on a freighter in Australian waters in the Indian Ocean.

The United States said it was concerned for the safety of those on board, while the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, said Australia had the prime responsibility to accept them.


We don't retreat in any way from what we have done, it is the right thing to do

John Howard, Australian prime minister
Australia has reiterated its refusal to allow the Norwegian-registered Tampa to dock at nearby Christmas Island.

About 460 mainly Afghan refugees have been crowded on board the Tampa since Sunday, when they were picked up after their Indonesian ferry began sinking.

The refugees - some of them reported to be sick - are being watched by elite Australian special forces who stormed the vessel on Wednesday.

New Zealand offer

New Zealand has said it could accept some of the refugees.


"We have a quota every year for refugees and probably we can manage something within that quota," said New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Norway insists that the refugees be allowed ashore, and has threatened to take legal action against Australia if it forces the ship out to sea.

The Norwegian company that operates the Tampa - Wallenius Wilhelmsen - says it has no plans to move the ship, because it is not certified to carry so many people. It is moored four nautical miles off Christmas Island.

Dialogue

As diplomatic efforts continued aimed at ending the stand-off, Norway's ambassador to Australia, Ove Thorsheim, flew to Christmas Island, saying he hoped to meet the ship's captain on Friday.

John Howard
Prime Minister Howard is under political pressure at home
Mr Thorsheim told reporters he would "assist the captain of the ship if there is a need for that," adding, "most important [I am here] to contribute to the dialogue between our government and the Australian Government".

The BBC's Damian Grammaticas on Christmas Island says Mr Thorsheim's presence will serve to add to the pressure on Australia to allow the refugees ashore.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, said Australia ought to accept the boat people for humanitarian reasons.

She told the BBC: "The [UN] Convention [on Human Rights] provides that they should be accepted at the nearest post. I think this issue is a very serious one."

Standing firm

However, Australian Prime Minister John Howard remains adamant that his country will not let the refugees land.

In a phone call to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Mr Howard said he would not back down.

Undated photo of Norwegian captain Arne Rinnan
The Tampa's captain is refusing to move
"We don't retreat in any way from what we have done, it is the right thing to do... and it was in Australia's national interest," he said.

Mr Howard told the Australian parliament the boat people "should go back to Indonesia because that was the port of embarcation", but he said Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri had not yet returned his telephone calls.

Mr Howard's policy has received wide support in Australia, where opinion polls say many Australians favour a hard line towards illegal immigration.

Indonesia, too, is standing firm, with its armed forces saying they will take military action to prevent the ship returning, the Associated Press news agency reported.

Conditions on board the ship, meanwhile, have deteriorated and international aid agencies have requested access to the passengers.

The migrants have been at sea for more than a week and are living in cramped conditions on board the Tampa, which is designed to carry only 30 crew.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Damian Grammaticas on Christmas Island
"If there is progress then it is very slow"
Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock
"It is only Australia that is providing humanitarian help"
UNHCR spokesman Chris Janowski
"Indonesia - in the long-run - is not an option"
See also:

30 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: High stakes for Howard
30 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia seeks help over boat people
30 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australian papers split on boat people
13 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia condemns vigilantes
31 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia's migrant policy under fire
12 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
Boost for anti-immigrant party
29 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australian public back hard line
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