8 Aust. YBIL 213 (1978-1980)
The Singular Plight of Sea-borne Refugees

handle is hein.journals/ayil8 and id is 237 raw text is: The Singular Plight of Sea-borne Refugees
R.P. Schaffer
Legal Adviser, Commonwealth Ombudsman's Office
Introduction
On 17 June 1980, the RAN destroyer escort, HMAS Swan, en route from
Singapore to Hong Kong, encountered seventy-two Vietnamese refugees on a
dangerously overloaded vessel in the South China Sea. According to a report
of a statement' made by a representative of the Royal Australian Navy, the
refugee boat was so over-crowded that the deck was only 30 cm above the
water and the vessel rolled considerably under the weight of the people on
board, even in fairly calm conditions. The refugees had such obviously
limited chances of survival should they have encountered bad weather that
the officer commanding the HMAS Swan decided to take them on board.
When the Swan berthed in Hong Kong harbour, the refugees were transferred
to a transit camp. The then Australian Minister for Immigration and Ethnic
Affairs, Mr Ian MacPhee, announced shortly after the rescue that Australia
would accept responsibility for the refugees in accordance with current
international arrangements in terms of which the country where the rescue
vessel was registered was obliged to offer guarantees for the resettlement of all
the refugees in the group.2
It appears, though, that not all governments can be taken to be in
agreement with the Australian Minister as to what constitutes 'current
.international arrangements' in this regard. Doubts concerning this practice
surfaced as early as December 1979, when the British tanker, Entalina,
rescued 150 Vietnamese refugees from a vessel that was in the process of
sinking in the Java Sea. When the Entalina attempted to disembark the
refugees at Darwin, the Australian Government stated that it was prepared to
offer the refugees temporary accommodation at the Darwin Quarantine
Station on condition that the British Government accept responsibility for
their eventual resettlement.3
Refugees with serious medical conditions were immediately allowed
ashore, but those not ill enough to be admitted to Darwin hospital were
forced to remain on board the Entalina pending the outcome of negotiations
between the Australian and British Governments. These negotiations proved
to be rather protracted. Part of the problem arose from the British
Government's reluctance to guarantee that it would resettle the refugees. The
British Government made it quite clear to the Australian authorities that it
did not regard the practice of flag state resettlement as an established
1. Sydney Morning Herald 27 June 1980.
2.  The Canberra Times 18 June 1980.
3. Sydney Morning Herald 5 December 1980.

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