(New York) Human Rights Watch today called on Australia to take prompt action to secure the safety of 438 rescued asylum seekers.

The mostly Afghan passengers, picked up from a sinking Indonesian ferry, are currently aboard a Norwegian freighter in Australian waters. Their fate has become a political football, with Australia, Indonesia, and Norway all unwilling thus far to take responsibility for their security.

"This is a question of basic decency," said Rachael Reilly, Refugee Policy Director at Human Rights Watch. "Australia can ponder its legal obligations indefinitely, but many of these people are sick, and it's well within Australia's capacity to help out. To try and pass off responsibility on to Indonesia or Norway is moral cowardice."

The asylum seekers were rescued by the Norwegian-registered Tampa after Australian coastguards asked it to assist. The freighter's owners have reported that medical conditions on board are serious, with many cases of diarrhoea, as well as dysentery and scabies. There are forty-three children on board, and two pregnant women. The male passengers are believed to have gone on a hunger strike.

Humanitarian concern for the well-being of the rescued asylum seekers appears to have been overshadowed by Australian politics. In recent years, the Australian government has imposed increasingly restrictive immigration and asylum policies. These include the interception of asylum seekers at sea, and mandatory detention for all unauthorised arrivals, including the use of solitary confinement, and restricted access to legal advice for many of those in detention. Prior to Australia's upcoming general election, anti-immigration sentiment has reached a fever pitch.

"It's disgraceful for the Australian government to use the dire plight of these asylum seekers to score political points," said Reilly. "The government should act responsibly, and right now."