Blow to Australian PM over refugees

29.Aug.01,  first published by BBCnews: read the original article here.

More than 400 refugees are on board the Tampa

The Australian Government has failed to secure new emergency powers that would have given it legal cover to return a ship packed with mainly Afghan asylum-seekers to international waters.

The government legislation was rejected by an opposition alliance in the Senate, which described it as too sweeping and politically-motivated.

Correspondents say it is the first sign that Australia's political consensus on the crisis is weakening.

The opposition Labor Party won support from smaller parties and managed to defeat the bill in a late-night sitting.

But all parties still support the government's position that the Norwegian ship will not be allowed to dock at an Australian port.

Dispute with Norway

Norway has reported Australia to the United Nations for refusing to allow the ship to enter its territory.

The Norwegian vessel, the Tampa, rescued the asylum-seekers from their sinking ship off the coast of Indonesia on Sunday.

Australian SAS troops boarded the vessel after it defied orders to stay outside Australian territorial waters and headed towards Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjoern Jagland said the priority was to get emergency supplies to those on board and he urged Australia to stick to what he said was its international obligation.

Our opinion is that international law is on our side

Hundreds of men, women and children from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan are crammed on to the ship's deck. Many are on hunger strike, says the captain of the ship, which is designed to carry 40 people.

Emergency aid

Australia has organised an operation to provide the refugees with emergency food and medical supplies, but it remains adamant in its refusal to allow the ship to dock.

Australian Prime Minister John HowardAustralian doctors who have seen those on board say only a handful needed medical attention.

Norway has also reported Australia to the Red Cross and other international bodies, including the International Maritime Organisation.

Mr Jagland said the 1951 UN convention on refugees stated specifically that refugees rescued on the high seas should be taken immediately to the nearest port. He said Norway would continue to insist that Australia accept responsibility for the 438 refugees aboard the vessel.

"Our opinion is that international law is on our side," he said.

But our correspondent says that is unlikely to worry the Australian Government, which has dismissed previous criticism of its treatment of refugees by the UN.

The Norwegians have also objected to Australian troops taking control of the vessel.


The ship's owners have accused Australia of "piracy", saying it had no right to board the ship because it represents Norwegian sovereign territory.

The vessel is currently still off Christmas Island. The refugees have threatened to riot if the Tampa sails out of sight of the island.

The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, said the troops had told the Tampa to head back to international waters. But he admitted the captain seemed disinclined to move, which "creates, of course, a very serious situation".

Three high-speed Australian navy boats carrying 60 Special Air Services troops intercepted the Tampa after it crossed the 12-mile (20km) territorial limit.

Howard's position

Mr Howard said that the Tampa had entered Australian territorial waters despite an earlier undertaking not to do so if medical assistance was given.

"The SAS personnel on the vessel have put it to the captain that the appropriate thing would be for the captain to return to international waters," he said.

Mr Howard, who described the situation as difficult and unprecedented, said: "Nobody is lacking in compassion with genuine refugees."

The asylum-seekers have demanded to be taken to Australia, but Australia says they should be returned to Indonesia.

The Indonesian Foreign Minister, Hasan Wirayuda, has said Jakarta will not allow the ship to dock in Indonesian territory.

The Tampa picked up the refugees as the wooden Indonesian vessel carrying them was on the point of sinking.