Boat People Put Spotlight on Refugee Row

The fate of hundreds of refugees stuck on a cargo ship stranded in international waters hangs precariously as the governments of Indonesia and Australia are under international pressure to bring an end to an increasingly desperate situation.

The nerve-wracking international standoff began early Sunday, when the Norwegian cargo ship Tampa rescued 438 refugees — including 43 children and 26 women, mostly from Afghanistan — from a sinking ferry that was making its way from the Indonesian archipelago to Australia's Christmas Island.

Conditions were rapidly deteriorating onboard as the crowded vessel prepared to spend its third night drifting in the Indian Ocean while the governments of Australia, Indonesia and Norway bickered over who should take in the refugees.

Australian authorities have refused to allow the ship to land on Christmas Island although it has organized an operation to provide emergency supplies to the refugees, should the need arise.

Indonesia announced it would accept the refugees early today, but Indonesian Foreign Minister Hasan Wirayuda later announced the government had reversed its decision, reiterating the problem was solely Australia's.

A spokesman for the Australian embassy in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta told the Australian embassy was in close contact with the Indonesian authorities to find a solution. He declined to provide any details.

Norway has refused to get involved. In an interview on an Oslo radio station today, Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjoern Jagland said it was Australia's "duty to let these refugees land at the nearest port."

Conditions Deteriorate Onboard

As the countries debate, nerves onboard the Tampa frayed, and concerns mounted that conditions could become very ugly.

Reached via satellite phone today, Capt. Arne Rinnan told the situation was "horrible — what would you expect?"

"The situation is rather difficult," said Hans Bangsmoen, a spokesman for Wilh Wilhelmsen, the Oslo-based owners of the Tampa. "Many of them are sick and the men are on a hunger strike, they are refusing to eat anything or even drink water."

Of the 26 women onboard the ship, two are pregnant, said Bangsmoen.

Although the two women appeared to be doing fine, Bangsmoen said there were several passengers suffering from diarrhea and many refugees were sick and vomiting onboard.

One of the World's Worst Humanitarian Crises

As the saga of the hapless boat people trapped in a nautical no-zone caught world attention, international aid agencies anxiously awaited an end to the standoff, ready to provide relief when and if the need arose.

"We do not want to point fingers at governments, we can only urge for a quick and humane solution to the problem," said Millicent Mutuli a spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, in Geneva. "While we have not been able to interview the people on board the ship, we have concerns that some of them might be genuine asylum-seekers fleeing political persecution."

Over the past few years, a crushing combination of drought, famine and fighting between Taliban forces who control most of Afghanistan and the opposition Northern Alliance in the ravaged Central Asian country has generated one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

Afghanistan has generated more than 3 million refugees over the past few decades, most of whom live in abysmal conditions in camps in neighboring Pakistan and Iran.

According to Chris Lom, a spokesman for the International Organization of Migration (IOM) in Geneva, some Afghan refugees in Pakistan who are in a position to afford airfares, fly to countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and in recent months, Cambodia, from where human cargo smugglers offer to take them — for a price — to Australia.

Losing Sympathy

But while Australia, a country built on immigration, has never refused access to boat people arriving at its shores, the increasing numbers of illegal immigrants seeking sanctuary on the island nation has led to a growing unease about the country's immigration policy.

Although Australia accepts about 10,000 refugees a year under formal United Nations programs, an estimated 3,700 illegal immigrants arrived in Australia this year aboard rickety vessels manned by Indonesian fishermen keen to earn extra cash.

Over the past decade, an estimated 13,000 unauthorized boat people, mostly from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and other Middle East countries, reached Australian shores. Hundreds are believed to have drowned on the way.

In recent months, Australia has come under heavy criticism from human rights groups for the conditions at several detention centers for illegal immigrants.

Last year, mass protests broke out at three detention centers in western Australia following reports of attempted suicides among detainees awaiting processing of their asylum applications, often in physically harsh conditions.

"Refugees in these detention centers wait long periods, running into months, to be granted interviews with Australian authorities who then determine their status," said Mutuli. "This raises questions of the manner in which the Australian government treats people in these camps."

But as Australians head for the polls later this year, opinion polls show that a vast majority of the Australian population has grown impatient with the country's liberal immigration policy. A recent poll for Channel Nine's Sunday program showed 78 percent public support for the government's hardline stance.

Given the mood of the electorate, the fate of the 438 refugees on board the Tampa looks increasingly bleak.