When the last of the Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers stepped off the Australian customs boat the Oceanic Viking on November 17, 2009, most Australians assumed that the issue was resolved.
The 78 Tamil asylum seekers were “intercepted” in mid-October and taken onboard the Oceanic Viking. They were then taken to Indonesia. The asylum seekers refused to get off the boat, fearing they would be deported back to Sri Lanka.
The asylum seekers maintained their protest, refusing to disembark, until mid-November when the Australian government made an agreement. If they agreed to get off the boat they would be resettled in 12 weeks from the time of disembarking, provided they were found to be a refugee by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This agreement was put in writing, the refugees have since told Green Left Weekly.
On the basis of this agreement, the last of the asylum seekers left the boat on November 17 and were taken to an Indonesian detention centre. Within a month, all 78 asylum seekers were determined to be refugees by the UNHCR.
This was the last that most Australians would have heard about the Oceanic Viking Tamils.
However, the Australian government hasn’t honoured this agreement. GLW is in touch with some of the refugees (whose identities and locations must be kept anonymous for their own safety). They say some of the refugees have been resettled: Canada accepted two; the United States accepted 22; three were resettled in Norway, and 13 in New Zealand.
Twenty were rejected by these countries, despite being recognised as refugees.
But, the refugees told GLW, 17 are detained in a UN camp in Romania. The camp is a detention centre, the refugees cannot leave. Another four are detained on Christmas Island because of adverse security assessments by ASIO. They too are UNHCR-recognised refugees.
More than 10 months after leaving the Oceanic Viking, the 17 refugees stuck in Romania have no idea when or where they will be resettled. So much for the Australian government promise of resettlement within 12 weeks.
For the four stranded on Christmas Island, there is a real risk of being deported to Sri Lanka. Australia’s immigration department has rejected many Tamil asylum claims, saying Sri Lanka is now “safe” for Tamils.