Global perspective Human stories

UN refugee agency proposes solution to ongoing Christmas Island boat saga

UN refugee agency proposes solution to ongoing Christmas Island boat saga

The United Nations refugee agency today proposed a plan to resolve the stalemate that has kept more than 450 people - mostly Afghans - aboard a container ship off Christmas Island for the past five days.

Spokesman Ron Redmond of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the agency held a meeting this morning with representatives of Australia, Indonesia and Norway to make its proposal. New Zealand, which has also taken an active interest, also attended.

The plan would allow temporary disembarkation for humanitarian reasons on Christmas Island, followed by an immediate screening of asylum applicants, which, if requested, could be carried out by UNHCR screening teams using the same international standards applied elsewhere in the world, Mr. Redmond said.

The final step would involve the transfer of asylum seekers to third countries, some of which have already come forward to offer continued processing or resettlement. "We've made a formal request to various countries to consider people for resettlement, including New Zealand and Norway, who have indicated they are ready to help," Mr. Redmond said, adding that the agency will wait for the response from the three most directly involved countries. "We are confident that this is the most logical way of resolving this extremely complicated episode."

The spokesman said UNHCR was aware of the "extremely generous" offer made by an East Timorese official to take the ship and its passengers, calling it "a truly humanitarian response from a nation-in-the-making with few resources." However, he said the vessel was now close to Christmas Island, the people have been aboard for far too long, and that island was the most logical place for them to go for the time being.

High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers said he was extremely grateful that some of the world's smaller and poorer nations have come forward with offers to help, Mr. Redmond said. He also noted that wealthier nations were responding as well, in a show of international burden-sharing reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s Indochinese boat people rescues and resettlement programmes.

Mr. Lubbers pointed out that in the longer term, there was a pressing need to address all of these issues at a broader political level, including the whole issue of long-distance trafficking of people through Southeast Asia, including Indonesia.