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SYDNEY, Australia (November 4, 2001 – The Australian/PINA Nius Online)---Australia's "Pacific Solution" to its boat people crisis is rapidly turning sour, according to The Australian newspaper's South Pacific correspondent Mary-Louise O’Callaghan

In a report evaluating the asylum seeker situation, she said, "Resentment is building at all levels of island societies, even in those states that have not been approached."

Regarding Australia's request to Fiji to provide a processing center for the asylum seekers, she said, "What is more difficult to understand is why Canberra would even consider making such a request of a small developing country battling to re-knit its social fabric in the wake of last year’s racially motivated coup.

"It’s a question now being asked by many throughout the region as they watch Australia, the country that has been preaching ‘good governance’ to its Pacific neighbors for more than a decade, urging under-resourced and in some cases politically unstable island states to do something it is refusing to do."

O'Callaghan said a policy originally prompted by the Tampa debacle – which saw asylum seekers rescued by this Norwegian ship finally landed on Nauru -- has since expanded in an ad hoc fashion.

It has been promoted to other island states, susceptible to the offer of some extra "development assistance," she said.

Australia -- faced with thousands of mainly Afghan and Middle Eastern asylum seekers trying to reach it by boat -- has used its military to stop them reaching its shores.

It is offering deals to get island countries to accept these boat people being brought to them for processing of their applications for refugee status.

O'Callaghan's report said: "So far only Nauru and Papua New Guinea have accepted just over 200 asylum seekers each in return for multi million dollar deals. But negotiations are currently in play with Palau, land-strapped Kiribati, Fiji and PNG to take a whole lot more boat people for processing.

"Vanuatu¹s Prime Minister Edward Natapei, referring to Australia as ‘Big Brother,’ urged Canberra to find a different solution to the boatpeople problem.

"NGOs from around the region issued a statement linking Australia’s policy with ‘human trafficking.’

"Polls by PNG’s The National newspaper web site and the FijiLive site showed an overwhelming majority of their readers opposed to the policy."

O'Callaghan said the emerging refugee market in the region, where Forum Island countries "lease" out their territories for quarantine and processing services, carries unknown risks.

"Yet it is evolving rapidly without the necessary legal and policy framework to ensure its proper and equitable regulation," the region’s top bureaucrat, Noel Levi, warned.

"Such a substantial population influx places extreme pressure on our already very limited resources, exposing our small and vulnerable economies to further social and economic problems, which we can ill afford."

O'Callaghan said Levi, who is Secretary General of the 16-member Pacific Islands Forum, is not known for his outspokenness. But he is far from being a lone voice in his criticism of Australia’s approach.

In Papua New Guinea, Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta’s Government’s decision to accept refugees has already strained his ruling coalition in the crucial months leading up to the elections.

Sir Mekere sacked his foreign minister, John Pundari, after his staff leaked a letter he’d written to the Australian High Commissioner, Nick Warner, without the Cabinet’s knowledge. He opposed any attempts by Canberra to send more refugees to PNG.

O'Callaghan's report in The Australian said: "Although there is evidence Mr. Pundari was using the issue to position himself with his own pre-election maneuverings, he had written: 'My objection was based on the belief that Australia has the capacity and resources to deal with the problem itself, including additional population to centers that are already operational in Australia.'

"It is this that goes to the hub of the resentment being generated by the policy: the sense that the deals being struck reek of colonialism in that they are actually exploiting Pacific countries’ needy status to impose something that would normally be rejected by the broad population.

"The potential for any long-term centers to generate further backlash against the Australian authorities has already emerged in PNG even though the refugees have been housed on remote Manus Island for just a week."

O'Callaghan quotes Papua New Guinea's The National newspaper as saying in an editorial: "It seems as though the perimeters of the boat people camp mark a new Australian colonial enclave.

"These marooned travelers, regardless of any embarrassment they may have caused Australia, and regardless of their international status, have committed no crimes against PNG, and broken no laws of this country.

"Why are they being isolated from the community in which they have been so unceremoniously dumped?

"And why is the rest of PNG being kept in the dark about them by an information blanket that would do credit to a nation at war?

"It is as if there were a tiny Australian possession on PNG soil."

For additional reports from The Australian, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Australian.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: 

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