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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 February 2007, 06:22 GMT
Australia reassures Sri Lankans
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

Asylum seekers on Nauru
Australia has a camp for asylum seekers in Nauru
Australia says a group of Sri Lankan asylum seekers will not be repatriated if independent evidence suggests they would face persecution at home.

The 83 men were intercepted last week by the Australian navy, after setting sail from Indonesia.

Sri Lankan officials insist the men need not fear being repatriated.

The authorities in Canberra have also been considering whether to send the boat people back to Indonesia, or to an off-shore processing camp.

'Nothing to fear'

For now, the 83 Sri Lankan men have been taken to a detention centre on Australia's remote Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island.

What happens to them next is unclear, but the government in Canberra is adamant the group will not be allowed onto the Australian mainland. Keeping potential asylum seekers well away from the mainland is part of a long-standing policy aimed at deterring boat people.

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews said the men, who are all Tamils, would be dealt with under United Nations rules.

Mr Andrews has insisted that they would not be repatriated if there was a danger they would face persecution.

Sri Lanka's ambassador to Indonesia, Major-General Janaka Perera, has said the 83 boat people would have nothing to fear if they were sent home, and added that he would guarantee their safety.

Sending the group back to Indonesia does not seem to be an option for the Australians.

The authorities in Jakarta have indicated that the Sri Lankans would be deported immediately, regardless of any concerns for their well-being.

But Australia does have some room to manoeuvre. It still maintains camps for asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea and on the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru.

They were established in 2001 as part of a tougher border protection regime, and currently hold only a handful of detainees.

Critics have insisted that conditions in these off-shore centres have been appalling and have demanded that they be closed down.

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