Thu, 30 Aug 2001

Indonesia reiterates refusal to accept illegal migrants

JAKARTA (JP): Indonesia, reiterating that it will not accommodate any more illegal migrants, said on Wednesday it would bar a Norwegian freighter carrying 438 asylum seekers, mostly Afghans, to drop anchor in the country following a military operation launched by the Australian government, which has also denied entry to the ship.

"We have no funds to continually accommodate illegal migrants in our country and we have appealed to UNHCR and other international migrant organizations to help solve the problem," Minister of Foreign Affairs Hassan Wirayuda told a media briefing.

The minister said Indonesia, as of May of this year, had accommodated more than 1,600 illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq who planned to seek asylum in Australia.

Indonesia's islands have long been prone to piracy and smuggling, now increasingly in human cargo trying to reach Australia after fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

"Indonesia will not accept illegal migrants ... although we understand that their intention was not to come to Indonesia but to go to Australia," Hassan noted.

Canberra has refused to let the Norwegian freighter Tampa enter Australian waters off its Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island and says the passengers are Indonesia's responsibility.

But in a dramatic development on Wednesday the Norwegian captain sailed into Australian territorial waters -- only to be halted by elite SAS troops who boarded the freighter and took control.

Hassan said Indonesia was "under no international obligation" to accept the asylum seekers.

Officials of the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) here were quoted by Reuters as saying on Wednesday that another large group of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia amid a diplomatic row over a stranded boatload of illegal immigrants is holed up on an Indonesian island off Lombok in West Nusa Tenggara.

Around 150 asylum seekers from mainly Afghanistan and Iraq are staying at a government guest house in Mataram, a city on eastern Lombok. Police said the group had no plan to leave the island, 1,100 km east of Jakarta and next to the resort island of Bali.

Tony Garcia, a UNHCR protection officer in Jakarta, said the Lombok group initially numbered about 300 but half had escaped and their whereabouts were unknown.

"We sent a team (there). In the meantime some of these people escaped, disappeared. And now we've only got about half of them. The other half somehow escaped," Garcia said.

The Norwegian ship has been at the center of an international impasse since the vessel rescued the mainly Afghan asylum seekers from a sinking Indonesian ferry last Sunday in the Indian Ocean. Australia, Indonesia and Norway have all refused to take responsibility.

A number of major international aid agencies urged Australia, Indonesia and Norway on Tuesday to resolve the problem of the 438 stranded boat people currently holed up on Christmas Island. (tso)