Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Just say no

The asylum seekers on board the Australian customs vessel Oceanic Viking continue to refuse to leave the ship, adamant that they want to be taken to Australia. But Foreign Minister Stephen Smith says the asylum seekers' hopes are irrelevant:

"There's an agreement between Australia and the Government of Indonesia that the people who were rescued in the open seas will go to Indonesia and be processed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Indonesia.

"They were picked up on the high seas. They were rescued on the high seas - it's not their choice."

Local Indonesian authorities apparently do not want the asylum seekers, who are only too happy to go along with this, refusing to disembark from the Oceanic Viking. The government today effectively acknowledging that, if necessary, the asylum seekers might be forced to disembark. This might be very difficult to pull off.

The Oceanic Viking, contracted from P&O, has a complement of some 75 of which approximately 25 are civilian crew. That leaves approximately 50 customs staff to supervise 78 asylum seekers, some 68 of which are males. Even though some of these customs officers are potentially armed and are well trained, it's hard to see them forcing the asylum seekers to do anything when they are outnumbered – what do they do if the asylum seekers refuse to comply?

The scenario is further complicated by the Indonesian authorities' refusal to assist in forcing the asylum seekers to go ashore - and why should  they help, this isn't their problem. It therefore seems to be in the asylum seekers' best interest to sit tight and see what happens. It's going to be very interesting to see who loses face here. Me, I'm betting on some sort of compromise that allows both sides to claim victory.

As an aside, since the Oceanic Viking is licensed to carry 75, and there are probably double that number currently on board, is the Australian government in violation of its contract with P&O?

Update: Indonesian authorities say the asylum seekers are being sent to the Indonesian port of Merak where they will be accepted. No word yet on whether the asylum seekers have consented to go ashore. This story continues to develop.


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