Foreign Policy Blogs

When the warehoused don't cooperate

Refugee children aboard the Oceanic Viking (from the BBC)

Refugee children aboard the Oceanic Viking (from the BBC)

The Christian Science Monitor has good coverage of the ongoing boat people controversy in Australia.  Due to the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, there has been a global surge in Sri Lankan Tamils seeking asylum with other countries.  Given Sri Lanka’s location, many of these asylum seekers pay people smugglers for spots on less than seaworthy boats that may get them to Australia.  The problem is that Australia really doesn’t want them.  As a result, these boats are normally intercepted while still in Indonesian waters and the asylum seekers taken to Indonesian detention centers where they may spend years waiting to be resettled in another country or sent back home.    

This was the plan when the Australian customs boat Oceanic Viking saved 78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers from their sinking ship last week.  But this time the asylum seekers aren’t cooperating.  Although the Oceanic Viking has been docked at the Indonesian port of Kijang since Monday, the Sir Lankans are refusing to disembark.  They want to go to Australia, and appear determined to make it as difficult as possible for the Australian government to shrug off their humanitarian obligations to Indonesia.  

The Oceanic Viking group may have gotten the idea from the 255 Sri Lankan Tamils who are refusing to leave the Australian Navy vessel that rescued them three weeks ago.  They too want to go to Australia, and are making it very difficult for Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to warehouse them in Indonesia quietly.  

This is not the first time that Australia’s refugee polices have come under scrutiny.  Under former Prime Minister John Howard, Australia introduced their “Pacific Solution” policy that saw asylum seekers — many of them Afghan, Iranian, and Iraqi refugees — deported to detention centers on small Pacific islands rather than allowing them to remain on the mainland.  The policy had broad support in Australia, but also fierce critics who charged that the “Pacific Solution” was just the new name for the outdated “White Australia Policy” that largely prohibited non-White immigration to Australia throughout the 20th century.  It also brought up the uncomfortable irony that while Australian soldiers were involved with waging war in Afghanistan and Iraq, thereby making those countries far less bearable than before, the government was also unwilling to give shelter to innocent civilians caught up in those conflicts.   

The current compromise with Indonesia regarding these asylum seekers — often dubbed the “Indonesian Solution” — is seen as a big step up from the Pacific Solution strategy, but still is a source of controversy as refugee warehousing is less than ideal from a refugee rights perspective.  On top of the human rights considerations, it is estimated that the government is spending $75,000 a day to keep the Oceanic Viking docked with the asylum seekers on board.  Many in Australia do not feel that they should have to bear this cost, while the asylum seekers themselves feel that they should be given the opportunity to enjoy the rights given to them under the 1952 Refugee Convention.  The standoff is leading to uncomfortable questions about whether the Australian government should allow the situation to proceed naturally, or whether they should force the Sri Lankans off the Oceanic Viking by any means necessary, including violent force.  

There are of course many other issues and questions involved in such situations, but the story of the Oceanic Viking is bringing these questions and Australian immigration policies back into the international limelight.  Given this context, it might be a good time for Australia to re-evaluate where and how this story will ultimately end, regardless of what happens to the Oceanic Viking and its passengers.



Kimberly J. Curtis
Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa

Great Decisions Discussion group