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Sunday, 22 November 2009

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Former Aussie FM disputes ‘refugee’ claims by boat people

Disputing that the 255 boat-load of people from Sri Lanka could be genuine refugees, former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer last week said the scrapping of immigration and border protection policies of the previous Howard government had put the people smugglers back in business. Downer has blamed the current Australian regime for the surge of asylum seekers heading their way.

He told a local radio station that these people could not be fleeing Sri Lanka because of the conflict since the war had now come to an end and peace has been restored.

Currently two boat-loads of Sri Lankans totalling some 300 people are held in Indonesia, awaiting the UNHCR to assess their asylum status.

Of them 70 odd people forcibly occupied the Australian Customs vessel Oceanic Viking until a few days ago when an agreement was reached with the Australian authorities.

According to reports they have been promised asylum within four to six weeks if the UNHCR finds them to be genuine refugees. Another 29 illegal immigrants, survivors of a capsized boat are detained in Christmas Island in Australia.

According to reports some of the people detained in Christmas Island have raised suspicion because they have injuries consistent with warfare such as shrapnel wounds. The former foreign minister now the UN envoy in Cyprus said the abolishing of tough laws, for which the Howard government was criticised a lot, had sent wrong signals to the human smugglers.

However, defending their decision to abolish the Pacific Solution that allowed sending boat people to Papua New Guinea and Nauru until their asylum claims are assessed, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has said that Australia had a hardline but humane policy.

A Sri Lankan engineer employed in Australia told the Sunday Observer that Sri Lankans in Australia understand that these boat people were mainly economic refugees despite their claims of fleeing oppression.

He said he had been inundated with questions from his Australian colleagues of the situation back home which forces people to flee in such a manner and this was quite an embarrassing situation for them all.

Asked what the general feeling of the average Australian, he said, “They are not happy, they think these people are exploiting the new policies and this problem is government’s own making.”

Despite the claims by these people of “worsening conditions” in Sri Lanka, the UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes who spent a day in Jaffna during his latest visit late last week expressed satisfaction over the rapid progress the Government has made within the past three months in resettling the IDPs. The numbers have nearly halved from the initial 280,000 to 136,000 today.

He said the commitment of the Government’s action “impressed” him. This had been his fourth visit to Sri Lanka. Holmes comments made on Thursday at a joint press briefing with Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama crushed the argument that oppression and violence in Sri Lanka had been a push factor contributing to the current surge of boat people heading towards Australia.

 

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