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Refugee standoff ended in Indonesian port

KUALA LUMPUR, Indonesia, April 20 (UPI) -- Sri Lankan migrants have ended a six-month standoff with Indonesian port authorities and agreed to remain in the country instead of being transported to Australia.

Most of the 200 would-be refugees to Australia left their boat in the port of Merak and were sent to detention camps elsewhere in Indonesia, the BBC reports.

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The mostly Tamil group demanded they be sent to their destination and had gone on hunger strike for several days over the issue.

Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasya told the BBC that the Sri Lankans had agreed to cooperate after lengthy negotiations.

Indonesia made no promises to the refugees, he added, only assuring them that once they were in a detention center, proper immigration procedures would be carried out to determine who among them had refugee status.

They say they are fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka where they face discrimination because they are Tamil. They refuse to go back to their homeland.

The migrants ended up in Merak after the Indonesian navy intercepted their boat, the Ocean Viking, last October, at the personal request of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. He and his government are under heavy political pressure over mounting numbers of asylum seekers.

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Many Australian politicians, of all parties, say the asylum issue is a regional problem but Asian countries are doing little to stop the people smugglers operating. Governments are unwilling to stop the boats if they are found in their territorial waters, preferring to see the vessels sail off to become Australia's problem.

To get the Indonesian government to react, Australia has been paying Indonesia to take in boat people found in Indonesian waters but who are heading for Australia to claim asylum.

Nonetheless, Australia is having to house and shelter hundreds of boat people each month, mostly in an overflowing detention center on its Christmas Island territory.

Some of the migrants from the Ocean Viking escaped the vessel last week after the Australian government announced a get-tough policy on asylum seekers, specifically naming people from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, reports in the Australian media said.

About 30 of the Sri Lankans escaped from the secured port area and are believed to have engaged the services of a people smuggler to get them abroad to Australia, a report in the Sydney Morning Herald said.

Nimal, a spokesman for the asylum seekers at Merak, said people on the vessel were ''disappointed and scared'' by the Australian decision. ''No one knows where they have gone,'' said Nimal. ''They don't know other people in Indonesia so I think they would have had contact with an agent."

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Sri Lankans were also concerned that the Indonesian government wouldn't guarantee that they wouldn't be sent back to Sri Lanka, Nimal said.

Rudd and Australian Immigration Minister Chris Evans announced an "immediate suspension of processing of all visa applications from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan" earlier this month.

But all regular maritime arrivals will continue to be processed at Christmas Island, even though the facilities there are "stretched," he said.

"The government has taken a consistently strong line on people smuggling. These changes send a strong message to people smugglers that they cannot guarantee a visa outcome. We have always had uppermost in our minds the need to ensure that we continue to discharge our obligations and international law."

The government said the policy will stem the flow of people risking their lives in rickety boats, as well stop them paying often ruthless people smugglers thousands dollars for passage across the ocean.

But critics have said the Australian government's clampdown has simply pushed hundreds of asylum seekers into the arms of waiting people smugglers in a mad dash to get to the shores under the mistaken idea they can arrive before the policy is enforced.

Even with the tougher asylum policy, there remains doubt about whether the Australian government has agreed to take any of the Ocean Viking migrants as part of the deal for them to leave their boat, the BBC said.

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