NAURU ASKED TO TAKE MORE BOAT PEOPLE

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SYDNEY, Australia (December 2, 2001 – Sydney Morning Herald/PINA Nius Online) - The Australian government has asked Nauru to accept hundreds more asylum seekers, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

It is the firmest sign since the election that Australia will not give up easily on its expensive "Pacific Solution," the newspaper said.

Nauru's President Rene Harris said his government was approached by the Australian consulate in Nauru on Thursday with the latest request.

The Nauru Cabinet will make a decision, he said, despite his earlier pronouncements that no more asylum seekers would be taken.

Nauru is already housing more than 700 Iraqi and Afghan asylum seekers.

President Harris said Australia did not give a firm number but, asked how many Nauru could take, he said: "I have been told it [the camp] can take at least 400-500 more."

The Australian Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island has about 550 asylum seekers who are awaiting a destination for processing. It is understood Australia is keen to get another 400 on Nauru, the Sydney Morning Herald said.

Australia -- faced with thousands of Middle Eastern and Afghan asylum seekers trying to reach its mainland by boat and claim refugee status -- has used its military to stop them. It has set up temporary camps in Pacific Island countries where processing of the boat people’s applications for refugee status are taking place.

Nauru President Harris said: "There's plenty of space where they are. It's the logistics [of providing] food and bedding, this that and the other."

His Cabinet will probably consider the matter during the visit of Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer beginning December 11.

Mr. Downer announced earlier this month that he would visit several Pacific countries, including Palau, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Nauru, and possibly Kiribati, this month.

President Harris said Australia had not yet offered any assistance in return for processing asylum seekers on top of the estimated AU$ 20 million (US$ 10,438,000) aid for taking the first group.

"Maybe when Downer comes they will," he said.

He refused to give his own opinion on the request, saying it would be premature to do so. "Cabinet needs to say. I haven't had time to think about it, really."

Just last month, President Harris told Parliament that Nauru would take no more than 700 asylum seekers.

He told the Sydney Morning Herald last week that while he could not rule out taking more after the current batch left, Nauru was not intending to take more while the present group was being processed.

Asked what effect taking more asylum seekers might have on his popularity and that of the government, President Harris said: "When you're in politics, you make a decision and that's it."

A spokesperson for Mr. Downer said any aid offer from Australia would come after there was in principle agreement from the Nauruan government to take more boat people.

Nauru came to the help of Australia when it was attempting to offload the human cargo from the Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, in August. Since then it has taken three other boatloads of mostly Iraqis for processing.

In exchange, the financially stricken country has had its power supplies paid for until May, scholarships doubled and AU$ 1 million (US$ 521,900) owed to Australian hospitals written off, the Sydney Morning Herald said.

Mr. Downer's spokesperson also said an Australian delegation was due in Palau soon to discuss that country taking asylum seekers.

For additional reports from The Sydney Morning Herald, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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