Standoff with Sri Lankan asylum seekers ends
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Standoff with Sri Lankan asylum seekers ends

More than 100 Sri Lankan asylum seekers who have been living for the past six months on a squalid ship in an Indonesian port agreed Monday to be moved to an immigration detention center after they were promised they would be resettled, an official said.

The 122 men, women and children were the last to leave the Jaya Lestari 5, which was stopped in Indonesian waters last October trying to sail to Australia with 253 ethnic Tamils on board. Most of the others agreed five months ago to move to the detention center on nearby Riau island off the coast of Sumatra.

The end to the standoff came after officials from the U.N. refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration visited the ship earlier this month and agreed to begin the process of resettling the Tamils to a third country, said Sujatmiko, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry’s director for diplomatic security. Like many Indonesians he uses only one name.

He said another 14 Tamils sheltered in a tent near the port were still being persuaded to leave.

Those who left the ship were taken without incident from Merak port in western Java to Jakarta’s main airport, where they were to board chartered flights later Monday to Riau island, Sujatmiko said.

The Tamils’ bid to reach Australia by ship was thwarted in October when Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd telephoned Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and asked him to stop them.

The issue of asylum seekers is a contentious one in Australia, where the government is struggling to cope with illegal boatloads of migrants who have filled its offshore detention center at Christmas Island and fueled a political debate over immigration policies.

Earlier this month, Australia suspended refugee applications from Afghans and Sri Lankans, citing improved conditions in those countries.

Sujatmiko said he hope the Tamils would be resettled quickly and that Australia would play a part in making sure that process goes smoothly.

“We need the Australian people and the Australian government to help them because they are in Indonesia because of a request from the Australian prime minister,” he said.

A 25-year civil war in Sri Lanka ended last spring with the military defeating the Tamil Tiger rebels. Ethnic minority Tamils there have accused the majority Sinhalese government of discrimination.
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