Australia is on the verge of clinching a deal with New Zealand, Canada, Norway and possibly the US to help resettle the 78 Tamil asylum-seekers rescued by the Australian Customs vessel the Oceanic Viking. The Australian understands a number of countries have indicated a willingness to take some of the Sri Lankans, who were rescued in October after their boat foundered. However, while sources say “a significant” number of the Sri Lankans are expected to be resettled in third countries, Australia is still set to take the majority.

News of the expected breakthrough came as a boat carrying 55 people was intercepted off Ashmore Reef on Tuesday night. The interception — the 54th this year — will push the immigration detention centre on Christmas Island to a boatload from breaking point. According to an Immigration Department spokesman, there are currently 1443 detainees on the island. But when the 55 intercepted on Tuesday arrive the number will jump to 1498, just 62 shy of the centre’s current capacity of 1560.

There is a growing expectation the government will begin transferring asylum-seekers to detention centres on the mainland, possibly as early as next week. At least three countries — New Zealand, Canada and Norway — are believed to have indicated to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees a willingness to take some of the 78 Tamils. The US is also understood to be interested, although it is not clear if a formal offer has been made.

New Zealand’s involvement would represent an about-face a month after Immigration Minister Jonathan Coleman refused to help resettle the Tamils, issuing a pointed rebuff to the Rudd government over its “ad hoc” handling of the incident. A spokeswoman for Dr Coleman could not be contacted for comment yesterday.

Nor would Mr Rudd’s office comment on the claims. A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Chris Evans would say only that Australia was in discussions “with other countries around the world which also have resettlement programs”.

Yesterday, The Australian reported all 78 of the asylum-seekers had been designated genuine refugees by the UNHCR, increasing the pressure on Canberra to find the Sri Lankans a home. It is not clear how many of the 78 will be resettled in third countries, although it is understood more than half will end up in Australia. One source said the numbers were still the subject of discussion, but that “a significant number” were expected to go to third countries.

Much will depend on whether Indonesia chooses to strictly enforce the timeframes for resettlement. In exchange for leaving the Oceanic Viking, Australia promised successful refugees would be resettled to a third country within four to 12 weeks. But the agreement also involved Indonesia, making continued goodwill from Jakarta essential.

Organising access to the asylum-seekers is also understood to be a potential barrier, with other resettlement countries expected to want see the 78 in order to conduct their own checks.

SOURCE

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