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Tuesday, 4 September, 2001, 10:55 GMT 11:55 UK
Refugee ship: Who should take responsibility?
International officials are trying to resolve the deadlock over 460 illegal migrants who have been stranded on board a Norwegian cargo ship since Monday.
Conditions aboard the vessel are said to be deteriorating, but Australia has refused to allow the refugees to come ashore and Indonesia, from where the group set sail, has rejected requests to let the ship return.
East Timor, one of the world's poorest nations, has said it would "favourably" consider an Australian proposal for East Timor to offer temporary shelter to the boat people as long as the international community pays all the costs.
But Norway dismissed the plan as "out of the question" and UN officials have questioned its practicality.
Should Australia allow the Afghans to come ashore or should they go to Indonesia? While Australia, Indonesia and Norway wrangle, who do you think should take responsibility?
This Talking Point has now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
Wouldn't it have been easier for the refugees to have fled to somewhere nearer to Afghanistan than Australia? India maybe or Kazakhstan. Is it possible that they chose Australia because they want the benefits of a Western lifestyle? Perhaps safety isn't enough?
Somnath Mukhopadhyay, United Kingdom
I feel sorry for the crew of the Tampa and the refugees, what they are escaping is barbarity at its worst. However, under UN legislation they should apply for refugee status in the first safe country that they come across, and not of their choice. Those responsible for 'hijacking' the Tampa should be held accountable - this occurred in Australian waters so then off to an Australian court they should go. Unfortunately it is not possible for everyone in the third world to come and live where they want - let Indonesia, a fellow Moslem country, deal with them.
I would like to suggest that the Australian Government should take more responsibility for the refugees. They escaped from a poor country or from the war there, so all of them have the right to find a safe place to live. If Australia sends all of refugees to a poor country like Separated Indonesia, can you predict what happens to them next ?
Domestic Australian immigration policy is not the issue here. This isolated case is a one off and should be dealt with as such by the Australian authorities who are obligated under international law to provide a safe harbour for victims of a shipwreck. To suggest as some people have done that this will open the floodgates to thousands of refugees setting sail in unseaworthy vessels - in the hope they will sink and might just end up being rescued and taken to Australia before they drown - is just hysterical xenophobia. It's time the entire international community, including Australia, owned up to its obligations to these refugees from oppressive regimes.
For the President of Nauru to say that he did not believe Australia would owe his country any favour by accepting the refugees, adding, 'a friend never owes a friend for anything' - now that's what I call class and humility. Anyone showing no mercy, no mercy shall be shown towards him.
No smoke without fire. There wouldn't be a party like One Nation if the country didn't have serious racist problems. What the polls show down here is truly great news for Pauline Hanson. I'm a Norwegian working in Australia, and my employers have asked me to stay so I can continue working here. After Tampa, my decision is that I will never again place my foot in this country.
Every other country in the world has to deal with the problem of refugees and asylum seekers. What makes the Australians so special that they think they should be allowed to just ignore the problem and hope it goes away?
I think Australia should land the people, deal with applications for asylum and grant the ones that fulfil the UN declaration on refugees, and send back those who fail. But Australia should not leave the people on the ship and put the burden on the captain and the ship's company, as this may force ships later to avoid helping people in distress at sea. Shame on the Australian government for this.
They should be sent back to Indonesia, where they came from. Poor job by the Norwegian captain, to take orders from the refugees.
It should be noted that the Australian authorities asked the Tampa to pick up these people on behalf of the Indonesian authorities. The rescue occurred within Indonesian coastal waters, a short distance from a major Indonesian port. After the rescue, the ship reversed course and proceeded to cross the Indian Ocean, a fact that the captain now says he can't repeat because it is against the law. I have to ask, why did he break that same law in the first place?
The gesture of the East Timorese should put the Australian people and government to shame. One of the world's poorest countries, only now emerging from decades of conflict, has offered to do what others have refused. Could it be because when they were in need, the rest of the world helped, and they now want to repay that? No, they shouldn't have to take on this responsibility, but the fact that they've offered speaks volumes when compared to the Australian attitude.
I am an Australian citizen. The response of my government and also most of the Australians on this page revolt me. To call these asylum seekers 'illegal immigrants' or 'queue jumpers' is normally a stupid point of view, but especially so in this case. The 'normal channels' that most detractors of asylum seekers refer to are the Australian embassies, consulates or representatives in the country of origin. There are none of these things in Afghanistan. Australia loses more people in emigration than it receives in refugees. To suggest that refugees are terrorists, or that a nation-wide government can in any way be intimidated by 400 fatigued asylum seekers is ridiculous. Not to mention offensive.
The Australian government's way of handling the situation is a shame (but no surprise). The international community are mostly looking the other way on helping, but strong on moral accusations (as usual). Everything is as normal. What is really sad is the comments from people whose forefathers filled every corner of this planet. With history in mind these "send them back" comments are a disgrace.
Australia, as a country which has accepted the highest number of refugees for the past 20-30 years, should settle this issue considering the human dignity of these immigrants and international laws in this regard. In case Australia has any sort of conflict with Norway, its government should discuss it on a separate ground with the government of Norway and avoid making these people do something unfavourable.
John Howard is playing 'the race card' in the lead up to the General Election here - he's got nothing to lose and the vote of every racist and reactionary red-neck to gain.
Many of the arguments in the press over the past week have focused on Australia as the "bad guy" in the Tampa affair. It would seem that Indonesia is guilty of allowing these "refugees" to be put on old wooden vessels from Indonesia bound for Australia by organised people smugglers. Australia has always been sympathetic to the needs of true refugees, however, Australian taxpayers should not have to support queue jumpers who often start riots in detention camps and demand all the luxuries of a first world nation.
The whole situation is tragic.
While I feel dreadfully sorry for those on board the ship, they have elected to illegally enter Australia by threatening the captain of the ship. (I feel very sorry for him he is caught between a rock and a hard place) Australia can't continue to open the doors to illegal migrants, we don't have the infrastructure to handle them. The UN needs to take some responsibility and speed up the processing of refugees. Australia would be happy (as demonstrated in the past) to take refugees but not queue jumpers.
I would just like to remind everyone that the Norwegian ship was requested by the Australian authorities to help the refugees from the sinking boat. An Australian airplane even guided the Tampa to locate the refugees. That Australia now claims to have no responsibility for these people is shameful. What was the captain of the Tampa supposed to do?
The country who should take these refugees and any others fleeing the Taleban regime is the United States of America. It was the USA that armed and provided funding either directly or via Pakistan, including funding groups the USA now refer to as terrorists and are suspected of attacks against American targets. The USA was the root cause of the problem in Afghanistan by their ridiculous cold war way of arming anybody, regardless of human rights, who claimed to be anti-communist. The mess in Afghanistan is a direct result of this USA paranoia and thus it is about time the USA started taking responsibility for its actions in the recent past.
Why didn't these Afghans go to one of the other Arab countries for help? Wouldn't Saudi Arabia help these people? They are very rich and surely they'd like to help their brothers in need? Just a thought!
I have always wondered why so few countries were willing to take Jews fleeing persecution and death from Nazi Germany. Australia's behaviour has made me realise that the world has not changed since that time. It also exposes us in the first world for what we really are - selfish and uncaring. On what grounds then are we condemning Saddam Hussein or Milosevic?
The law is on Australia's side in this case. Initially this dispute had nothing to do with Australia. The survivors were picked up in Indonesia's search and rescue zone and the nearest port was Merak, Indonesia. The Captain was forced to head to Christmas Island by the migrants. This clearly makes them economic migrants and are therefore ineligible for refugee status in Australia. These people are just queue jumpers.
Can't we just look beyond questions of maritime law and domestic politics for a minute and show a little humanity. These are desperate people. The fact is that the majority of them (if not all) are likely to be genuine refugees who have faced the kind of torment that is incomprehensible to many of us. They are human beings. Shame on us for treating them otherwise.
I have been a resident in Australia now since January. Even though I have every sympathy for those on the liner I think that they should apply like everyone else. Why should they have the right to queue jump?
Australia should not be seen as cruel and heartless. Anyone on the face of the earth can apply for refuge in Australia, through an application at their nearest Australian embassy or High Commission. If I was a refugee and had the 5 or 10 thousand dollars needed to pay a human trafficker, I would rather opt to invest the money in a legal application for refugee status and an airfare.
From a humanitarian perspective, I think that it is obvious that Australia should take the immediate or short term responsibility for the refugees. Perhaps it would be right that Norway took responsibility for these people in the long run. I don't know. But it is a shame that neither Australia or Norway will relieve the captain of his current responsibility for the refugees. Will the same captain make an effort to save people from drowning in these waters in the future? I fear not.
Clive West, UK
I think the problem should not be reduced to a conflict about interpreting international maritime laws. The Norwegian ship has saved the lives of the refugees and should not be rewarded that way. On the other hand, Australia has the right to refuse the refugees coming in. It is the UNHCR's responsibility to intervene and solve the problem.
Percentage-wise, Australia's record of accepting refugee numbers is equal to UK. Far more than USA. Who knows what Norway's is? Yes, Samir of India, I have had times to wonder where "my next rice bowl comes from", so have some other Australians, born here or not. I've also lived some years in England and was appalled at how things turned out there with race relations. It seems these people spend massive amounts of $ to come here, bypassing many other "safe" countries. Our economy is in a similar state to UK in the early 80s. These people have threatened a ship's captain demanding to come here. Come on! What about sending them to one of the countries they passed through before they arrived in Indonesia?
A. Jirde, Canada
Any country which signs treaties governing human rights and refugees - should allow people in to submit their case - to not do so is breaching their international obligations and setting a poor example to the rest of the world who will follow. Most of the world's refugees are hosted by neighbouring poor countries and do not make it to "1st world nations" - logistics dictate this. If the 1st world nations continue to act in the way Australia has (and Britain - through repressive legislative measures) other countries may follow - which may mean further atrocities such as Rwanda or the Holocaust being revisited by us all.
Those who say Australia is a big country with few people are being fooled by appearances. This place is mostly desert (some of it saltpans made by ourselves) and we are running out of water. It's true, we would have no trouble taking this load and the next, it's the 10 million after that we are a bit nervous about. Apparently the doctors have found the people to be in good health and there are many countries closer to Afghanistan than Australia. They are economic refugees who chose to leave mostly Muslim Indonesia for multicultural Australia. Australia's main fault is that we take far too long to process those who actually make it.
Just like the hijack issue that affected the UK last year, this is clearly a pre-meditated attempt to flaunt a nation's welfare policy. Australia is right, and jolly good luck to them. The problem is, however, who is making a stand in the UK, at least 400 come in every single day draining an already overstretched resource, not to mention the unlimited tax burden on the likes of millions of Britons. How heartless, I hear you do-gooders shout. On the contrary, I would rather see our and other European Governments doing everything they can, with the necessary financial resources, to help mop up the devastation in many of these countries and reason with these tin-pot regimes and moronic leaders so that people can stay in their own countries.
What I am sick of, is looking at my payslip every month, looking at what I get for my money, and realising that it is all going to waste. Finally, it is worth mentioning that this vessel, just like the refugees that our European partners push through their borders at their expense (the refugee holding places in the French ports is a classic example), pointing them to the UK, has passed countless countries to get where they are. This is an absolute disgrace and it must stop, now.
Australia is entitled to protect its sovereignty. That's the duty of a government. Nobody has the right to enter a country against the wishes of a government. And all the talk about compassion. Think about the 1.5 million on the Pakistan border who have been expelled from Afghanistan and don't have the money these illegals paid to be smuggled into Australia. Do we want to reach the situation where people can buy their way into compassion for the predicament they're in?
Why should Australia be forced to take responsibility? Under the terms of the Geneva Convention, people seeking "asylum" are supposed to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, they are not supposed to pick and choose where they go. Australia is perfectly within its rights to defend its territorial waters in the way that it has done.
It is easy to comment with high words when it is not happening to your own country. Australia has taken the correct decision looking at the long term impact. One has to understand what happens in the country after they have landed.
Perhaps we in Britain should send back the thousands of Australian economic refugees who stump up here in Britain every year?
Australians, hang your heads in shame.
Richard Moore is correct: Australia does have a tiny population, and is indeed many times the size of the UK. However, as Richard would know if he had actually studied Australia properly, its population is centred around a few large towns around the country. Great areas of Australia are almost inhabitable, with desert, no water supplies, no transport, etc. Is he suggesting that we take the 400+ refugees and dump them in the desert to start their new lives? Who is being inhumane now?
I think Australia's PM should put politics aside. Nobody should decide at this stage whether they are really genuine refugees. Taking a risk and sending them back is a cheap political stunt that should not be done at humanitarian expense. It is definitely everybody's right to seek a better life or run away from danger. It is really a disgrace to reject those people instead of welcoming them and addressing their needs. Let's not forget that most powerful countries like the US, Canada, Australia were built by immigrants. Now we give more attention to animals in need than to humans!
KN, Hong Kong
These people need assistance, but not from Australia. When do we stop helping illegal boat people? With the next 400? Australia has finally woken up and over 90% of us are supporting the decision so far. Don't back down now.
While this argument goes on those 400 men women and children are still waiting, crammed on a ship designed to carry only 40 people. If Australia really is a compassionate nation, they would let them land and then decide what to do with them.
It is little different from saying America should have thrown Elian Gonzalez back in the ocean.
Australia, be ashamed.
Andre Louetta, Australia
This is the world today. Nobody wants to help anybody any more. It's really scary.
Yes, even though it is a heartbreaking story, they need to be sent back. Like Sheldon said, it is similar to terrorism. We can't have every refugee who hijacks a boat or a plane being given asylum.
Public opinion here in Australia strongly supports the Government's stand with most polls running at around 80%-plus in favour of not accepting the illegal boat people. Like many others I resent the fact that so many of these people spend big money to come here illegally and then make demands on our already stretched resources and our taxes. I am fed up with it as well as with the people smugglers who bring them here.
I support the Australian stance on illegal immigrants. The vast majority of so called asylum seekers in the UK are obviously economic having crossed many countries before the UK. The Australians obviously feel like me that they have no obligation to these people.
I think if I lived in Afghanistan I would be desperate to escape too. I would consider them to be genuine refugees, you only have to take one look at the Taleban regime to see why. These are desperate people. Isn't it time we showed some compassion to people brave enough to leave? Perhaps the UN or Nato should do something to help the people of Afghanistan and stop the Taleban imposing such a totalitarian rule. Then people wouldn't need to escape and risk their lives on old rusty boats. But I guess they won't until there is oil found there!
We owe it to our brothers and sisters to protect them from oppressive governments. Australia has a tiny population and is 10 times the size of the UK, yet they are incredibly tight when it comes to immigration. Democratic Countries of the 'free' should be protecting all of mankind, not just the rich few.
Melanie Deans, England
The refugees are on a Norwegian ship. Therefore they should be responsible. They picked them up with the intention of 'landing' them somewhere. The Australians are quite within their rights to say not here. It is good to see a nation finally take a stance on this serious issue.
Seems quite clear cut to me. The refugees were rescued from an Indonesian ship of the cost of an Indonesian port so it seems plain that Indonesia bears the responsibility for them. Good on the Aussies for rescuing them from certain death but that doesn't mean to say they now have responsibility for them.
The present arrangements only create an indigenous group of economic refugees in the countries where they are settled
Vic Price, Scotland
How can we send them back? We should never expect other people to experience things, which we would not tolerate. And 400 people crammed on a ship meant for 40 is one of them.
I'm not an expert but have been led to understand that people wishing to claim asylum must do so when reaching the first safe country. If Norway are accusing the Australians of piracy because the ship is their sovereign territory, does that not leave the responsibility with them?
Has Richard Sheldon seen the news recently? I certainly agree with taking a hard line on bogus asylum seekers, but I have nothing but sympathy for anyone seeking to leave Afghanistan.
I agree with Australia on this one. Why are we constantly footing the bill for the shortcomings of other countries? We constantly help, yet we also constantly suffer both at the hands of terrorists from the same countries that we give aid too, and rising levels in crime. It's not the refugees that should always suffer though; it's the leaders of those countries they are fleeing that should be made to pay the political and financial price for the disturbances they cause. There is a limit to the generosity of civilised countries, and that unfortunately for humanity has reached breaking point.
The whole premise of being a refugee is that you are fleeing an intolerable situation, and surely the Afghan people have their share of misery. So why are they so adamant that it be Australia they seek refuge in, when Indonesia is offering asylum as well? Surely seeking a safe environment (albeit in detention, which is required so that they don't simply disappear into their new country) is their priority? Nothing would then stop them from processing a legal application for Australia, is this is what they prefer.
I do not have a good enough understanding of either Maritime or general International law to make a judgement in these areas. However I think if no other satisfactory solution can be reached then Australia must take the only humane course of action and accept these refugees. The government will not do this in a horrific game of political point scoring.
In response to Mr Sheldon and others with similar views. Would you feel the same way if that was you wife, kids, mother and father? I bet you would think differently. These people are humans and not toys. You are cold, heartless and the biggest hypocrite.
The question that should be asked is why the refugees insist on going to Australia rather than Indonesia. Could it, perhaps, have something to do with the availability of welfare cheques? Why should they not be returned to Indonesia? Why, if they are fleeing from Afghanistan, do they need to go all the way to Australia? Are they not economic migrants using refugee status as a passport to an easy life in a soft country? And is that fair or even remotely reasonable?
In regards to Mr. Sheldon's comments, which I found to be cold and heartless: it is easy for you to make such statements but imagine living under a regime which has systematically killed anyone who opposes them. Imagine living in a destroyed country, with no future, and trying to feed your family while at the same time trying not to be killed for something as trivial as not wearing a veil or forgetting to pray.
I came to the UK a year ago, which probably displeases you - but I did it to escape a regime the likes of which you can never comprehend. Perhaps if you could spend a day in Afghanistan you'd see why these people are on that ship and I'd bet if you were in their shoes you'd be on that ship too.
As the owners of the Norwegian ship are crying piracy, citing invasion of Norwegian territory, the refugees should remain on Norwegian territory and claim asylum! Unfortunately, Australia, like the UK, is seen as a soft touch for asylum, and I agree that the Australian Government must stand resolute in their stance. They seem to have more backbone in this issue than the UK Government.
With an election looming, Australian politicians are indulging in the same disgusting behaviour as their British counterparts did a few months ago. Despite fleeing what is probably the most evil regime on the planet today, these poor folks are considered fair game when politicians want to show how "hard" they are. It's a pity that our democratic systems encourage the solicitation of the most unsavoury elements within our societies.
It will be criticised by some, but Australia is right to make a stand. Something has to be done to stem the "refugee" tide. I understand that Australia already accepts a great many refugees through legitimate UN sponsored schemes. If only the UK would also take this view.
One should ask one's self, why do people run away from the land of their birth, and seek refuge, in other countries, is it because of persecution, war or greed, put yourself in their place, now what do you thing of the situation. Should you be given refuge or should you be sent back?
Australia cannot be seen to be taking in every boat load of illegal immigrants that attempts to land on their shores. If they back down and allow this ship to land, they will be setting a precedent for all other illegal immigrants. Send them back to where they came from.
Well done Australia for standing up to the refugees they should all be sent back from where they come from and their own government should compensate the shipping line in this case for the trouble they have caused, otherwise I am sure there will be an insurance claim which will cause hardship for those good honest people who don't hijack boats. If only the UK said NO to the thousands that flood into this country every year we would be better off because our taxes would be lower because we would not have all these people bludgeoning of the state. Maybe Blair and co should take note!
Why should Australia be the whipping
boy for the failed lifestyles and policies
of Islamic nations in Southeast Asia.
These are Afghan refugees tossed
out to sea by the intolerable attitudes of
the Taleban - a group that holds
UN aid workers for just reading their
Well, Australia is such a small country, and has such a large population for its size, it is obviously completely unfair to expect them to help people in distress.
Seriously, if the world wants to stem the tide of refugees fleeing from the various inhuman regimes and social problems around the world, then it has to do something to make life in these countries better. If the international community were a little more generous in providing help to people in the places where they live, they would have no reason to up sticks and travel the globe seeking asylum and humane treatment.
Not even the UN knows if the Australians have broken maritime law. They say that in these circumstances the law is 'ambiguous'. The UN as a whole should be taking responsibility by helping pull ruined states back onto their feet and preventing this kind of thing happening in the first place. I wish people would stop looking to blame all the time and start acting instead.
Richard Sheldon, England
28 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia is refugees' goal
27 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Tampa captain's tale of woe
31 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia's migrant policy under fire
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