Australia sends SAS to confront refugees

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The Independent Online

Australia's élite SAS troops struck at dawn, racing across the water in their Zodiac craft, armed to the teeth ­ to confront a cargo of human misery, 438 sick and desperate asylum-seekers on board a ship no nation will allow into shore.

In an unprecedented move to prevent the mainly Afghan refugees from landing at an Australian port, about 40 soldiers boarded the Norwegian freighter, the MVTampa, after it steamed into Australian waters in defiance of Canberra on Wednesday.

Norway led the international chorus of condemnation. "This is the wrong reaction to a humanitarian problem," said the Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg. As a serious diplomatic argument blew up between the two countries, Norway lodged complaints with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Maritime Organisation and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, defended his country's policies, saying: "No country has been more generous in the last 20 years to refugees than Australia." But he added: "It remains our very strong determination not to allow this vessel or its occupants ... to land in Australia."

Australia, one of the world's most successful immigrant societies, has long been hailed as a haven for refugees. That image is in shreds after on Wednesday's events off Christmas Island, an Australian territory 930 miles west of the mainland. Amnesty International accused Canberra of violating the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. Lars Olsson, an Amnesty spokesman, said: "It is horrible that these people ­ we are speaking about human beings ­ are being used as political pawns in this situation."

For the asylum-seekers, who had fled homes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the arrival of commando troops in camouflage gear must have come as a cruel shock. They had already survived a shipwreck in the Indian Ocean and spent three days and nights on the Tampa's sweltering deck.

Australia has made it clear that they are not welcome since the Tampa rescued them from a sinking Indonesian ferry on Monday. But the ship's captain, Arne Rinnan, decided his only option was to head for Christmas Island after he received an unsatisfactory response to three overnight distress signals about the deteriorating health of his human cargo.

The asylum-seekers ­ who include dozens of children and two heavily pregnant women ­ are suffering from dysentery, scabies, dehydration and fatigue, according to the Norwegian shipping company Wallenius Wilhelmsen. It said that 10 people had lost consciousness and were not responding to external stimuli, while "countless others" showed serious signs of distress. The men have been on hunger strike for two days.

Because the ship is designed to accommodate only the 27 crew, the asylum-seekers have been obliged to live in freight containers and on the open deck. Tarpaulins are their only shelter from the tropical sun. One container has been turned into a makeshift toilet.

Peter Dexter, the company's regional director, said that Mr Rinnan set sail for land because he feared that if he did not obtain immediate medical help "he could well be faced with deaths on board". Australia has promised to provide humanitarian and medical assistance, but although it has has flown supplies to Christmas Island, they have yet to reach the Tampa.

The SAS troops came in three boats and used equipment to clamber up the side of the Tampa. Australian military doctors who accompanied them reported that no one required urgent evacuation. But a company spokesman, Hans Christian Bangsmoen, accused the medics of conducting a cursory examination. "They took a very quick and superficial ... overview and came to a different conclusion to us," he told Norwegian public radio.

The next move in the stand-off was not clear on Wednesday. Wallenius Wilhelmsen said the crew was still in control of the ship and Mr Rinnan was refusing to move from his location five miles off Christmas Island. The company warned that it would take legal action against the Australian government if troops forced the ship to return to international waters.

Australia's hardline stance is aimed at stemming a tide of mainly Middle Eastern asylum-seekers who have arrived by sea via Indonesia in recent years. But its decision to turn away the Tampa has horrified refugee advocacy groups and prompted fears that seafarers will be discouraged from going to the aid of ships in distress.

Mr Stoltenberg, who held a terse telephone conversation with Mr Howard, said it was "the law of the sea ... that the nearest port should offer emergency humanitarian assistance" to people rescued on the high seas.

The actions of Mr Howard's conservative coalition government have won widespread support at home, where there is little sympathy for so-called "boat people", regarded by many Australians as queue-jumpers and economic migrants. More than 70 per cent of callers to talkback radio have backed the decision to turn away the Tampa.

Some commentators are even describing Christmas Island as Mr Howard's Falklands, referring to Margaret Thatcher's resounding election victory after she sent British troops to regain control of the islands in 1982. Mr Howard, who had been performing poorly in opinion polls, must call a general election before the end of the year.

He told parliament on Wednesday that the Tampa had entered Australian waters "in contravention of clear advice from the Australian government to the Norwegian government".

More than 1,500 asylum-seekers, mainly from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, have landed on Christmas Island in the past fortnight and been flown to the mainland.

Indonesia has refused to offer a temporary home to the Tampa's occupants, some of whom have threatened to throw themselves overboard if the ship sails from Australia.

Although Australia absorbed waves of post-war immigrants from Europe and Asia, it now has one of the world's harshest refugee policies, resettling just 10,000 refugees each year under UNHCR programmes.