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Tuesday, 5 February, 2002, 13:11 GMT
Q&A: Australia's 'Pacific Solution'

Australia has come under fire from aid agencies and religious leaders for its policy of sending boat people to Pacific island nations - its so-called Pacific Solution - to have their asylum claims assessed. Phil Mercer in Sydney explains what the controversy is all about.

What is the Pacific Solution?

It involves the processing of asylum seekers in two Australian-funded camps in the Pacific.

One is in Papua New Guinea at the Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island, about 350 kilometres (210 miles) off PNG's north coast. The other is on the tiny island state of Nauru, the world's smallest republic.

The conservative government of John Howard sees the camps as a solution to what it sees as the problem of boat people - or illegal immigrants - heading to Australia across the Indian Ocean from Indonesia. Mr Howard hopes the offshore centres will deter others.

How did it come about?

The catalyst was the Tampa, the Norwegian freighter which rescued 400 mainly Afghan asylum seekers from a sinking boat in the Indian Ocean in August 2001.

The vessel and its human cargo was refused permission by the Howard government to land anywhere in Australia, including Christmas Island, one of its far-flung territories.

Most of the refugees ended up in hastily-organised camps on Papua New Guinea and on Nauru. Immigration officials state that Australia was at the time experiencing a big influx of "illegal boat arrivals".

The government pushed new laws through the Federal Parliament in September 2001 to establish its 'Pacific Solution.'

How many asylum seekers are involved?

Australia's Immigration Department said in February 2002 there were 356 asylum seekers at the Manus Island centre in Papua New Guinea. Most are from Iraq.

There are 1,159 detainees in the Australian-funded camp on Nauru. That is a total of just over 1,500.

Are the islands happy to take them?

It is unlikely the governments of Nauru or Papua New Guinea would have agreed to help without significant financial and aid inducements from Australia.

These two island states were among a number of Pacific nations approached by Canberra.

Fiji refused, pointing out it was still struggling to cope with divisions between its indigenous and ethnic-Indian communities without Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians adding to an already volatile racial mix.

Tuvalu also said no. It was hardly a surprise. On 2001 the tiny island, worried about rising sea levels, made an unsuccessful plea to Australia to take in some of its islanders.

How much is it all costing?

So far, no official figures have been released. There are reports, however, that the President of Nauru, Rene Harris, negotiated a deal worth at least $15m (Aus $29m) to house more than 1,000 asylum seekers.

Who is processing the applications?

The assessment of asylum claims is conducted the same way in the offshore camps as it is throughout Australia's network of immigration detention centres at home, including Woomera in South Australia and Port Hedland in Western Australia.

The applications are processed by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) along with Australian immigration officials.

There are three interviews which determine if an applicant is a genuine refugee. Some human rights campaigners have claimed some applications have been turned down without these interviews taking place.

There are also complaints that poor interpreting has lead to mistakes in the process. There are lengthy appeals procedures, through the Refugee Review Tribunal and the Australian Federal Court.

Since October 1999, successful applicants are no longer granted permanent residence in Australia but are instead given a renewable three-year temporary visa.

Refugees arriving under international resettlement programmes are, however, given permanent visas.

Have any refugees been granted asylum?

The government says no official decision has been reached on any of the 1,500 asylum seekers in its offshore camps.

However, Nauru's President, Rene Harris, has said he has been told by Australia that all the 1,159 detainees on the island have been processed and they would soon be leaving.

Mr Harris said he did not know if their applications for refugee status had been successful or exactly where the detainees would be sent to.

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