11 Nov 2009

Refugee group calls on NZ to take asylum seekers

4:58 pm on 11 November 2009

The Refugee Council has added its voice to calls for the New Zealand Government to step in and help Sri Lankan boat people.

About 330 Sri Lankans seeking asylum in Australia are aboard two boats off Indonesia, and the Australian Immigration Minister has raised the possibility of New Zealand taking some of them.

Prime Minister John Key says this is unlikely to happen, as it would reward queue jumpers over other refugees.

Refugee Council president Nagalingam Rasalingham says helping on humanitarian grounds would not result in New Zealand being seen as a soft touch.

Amnesty International's New Zealand chief Patrick Holmes has urged New Zealand to look favourably on applications from any Sri Lankan refugees.

"There's absolutely no reason why they should not settle successfully in New Zealand, and the New Zealand Government should take its responsibility very seriously in this regard."

Mr Holmes says these people are genuine refugees.

Green Party MP Keith Locke says New Zealand should be a good neighbour and share Australia's load.

Agreement should be 'honoured'

Australia's Immigration Minister Chris Evans says Australia has an agreement with New Zealand and other countries on resettling asylum seekers detained in Indonesia.

Mr Evans told the ABC he would expect other countries to accept people out of Indonesia under the agreement, known as the Bali Process. It was initiated by Australia and Indonesia in 2002 to combat people smuggling.

But Mr Key says New Zealand would probably not agree to take any of the Sri Lankans, because it would not want to encourage what he described as "the wrong sort of behaviour".

Immigration Minister Jonathan Coleman says there are thousands of displaced people in the Asia-Pacific region and the Government doesn't want to reward queue jumpers.

Australian opposition agrees with NZ

Australia's Federal Opposition party says it's understandable that New Zealand doesn't want to resettle asylum seekers on board one of the boats, the Oceanic Viking.

Opposition immigration spokesperson Sharman Stone says fast tracking the process would send a message to people smugglers.

Last month 78 Sri Lankans were rescued by the Customs ship Oceanic Viking from a sinking refugee boat in Indonesian waters.

They are refusing to leave the ship, which is now moored off Indonesia's Bintan Island, because they do not want to be taken to Indonesia. Instead, they want to be taken to Australia to have their refugee claims processed.

Another 250 Sri Lankan asylum seekers are refusing to get off a boat in west Java, and an unknown number more are in camps in Indonesia, paid for by Australia.

Many of the current wave of asylum seekers are Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing what they say is persecution following the end of the country's 26-year civil war, which left a quarter of a million people dead.