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Tuesday, 4 September, 2001, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
Australia voters back PM over refugees
HMAS Manoora
HMAS Manoora is en route to Papua New Guinea
Australia's tough stance on a boat-load of refugees is sending Prime Minister John's Howard's popularity with voters soaring just months away from a general election.

The 433 mostly Afghan asylum seekers are heading for Papua New Guinea on an Australian navy ship after a nine-day standoff in the Indian Ocean.

John Howard votes at the last election
Many voters admire John Howard's actions
As they headed away from Australia's remote Christmas Island, four Indonesian sailors were charged with people smuggling.

They were crew members of the ferry which the refugees were travelling on before being rescued by the Norwegian freighter Tampa.

A Newspoll survey of 1,200 people found support for the Conservative government at 45%, six points ahead of Kim Beazley's opposition Labor.

It is a five-point increase on two weeks ago and a potentially election-winning lead.

Stranded at sea

But Mr Howard said: "I didn't do this for poll reasons. I did it because I thought it was right."

Indonesian sailors on Christmas Island
Four sailors are charged with people smuggling
The asylum seekers were stranded at sea for more than a week after the Tampa rescued them from the sinking Indonesian ferry on 26 August.

It took them to Christmas Island but Australia refused to let them land.

On Monday they were put on the navy troop carrier HMAS Manoora, which is now heading to Papua New Guinea.

From there, Australia plans to fly them to New Zealand and the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru, which will take 150 and 283 respectively while individual asylum claims are assessed.

However, civil liberties lawyers are fighting a case in Australia's Federal Court, claiming the country acted unlawfully in refusing to accept the boat people.

If they win, the court could order the Australian Government to take the asylum seekers.

Government lawyers argue the refugees arrived on Australia's doorstep illegally. They say the asylum seekers "hijacked" the Tampa by threatening to jump overboard if it did not sail to Christmas Island.

Meanwhile, the four Indonesians were charged with trying to sail the asylum seekers from Indonesia to Australia on board the ferry KM Palapa.

Tough new laws

If convicted, the four, aged between 17 and 31, face a maximum jail sentence of 20 years.

Under tough laws introduced in Australia in 1999, people-smugglers also face fines of up to A$220,000 (US$116,000).

The asylum seeker crisis has triggered a fierce debate within Australia.

An Australian Navy helicopter hovers to pick up supplies for the refugees
Supplies had to be ferried to the Tampa
Critics of the government say it has already cost the country about A$20 million (US$10.6 million) more than it would have cost to keep the refugees for more than a year.

Packages containing bullets and detonators were sent to three politicians critical of the government's stance.

They were intercepted during routine mail checks and are being investigated by police.

One of the parcels was sent to opposition leader Kim Beazley, who said: "Events like this show the issue of immigration has the potential to raise a great deal of ugliness in the community."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Dominic Hughes
"John Howard seems to be reaping the rewards over his tough stance on refugees"
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer
"We have to have an orderly process"
Archbishop of Perth Peter Cranleigh
says that Australia's international image has been damaged by this episode
See also:

03 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia ships out Afghan refugees
01 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Pacific states step into the breach
01 Sep 01 | South Asia
Pakistan halts deportations
13 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia condemns vigilantes
31 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia's migrant policy under fire
12 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
Boost for anti-immigrant party
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