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By Andrew Clennell

SYDNEY, Australia (December 27, 2001 – Sydney Morning Herald)---The number of boat people arriving in Australia or caught up in the Government's Pacific Solution has passed the 5,000 mark this year, more than 1,000 more than the previous record year of 1999.

The Immigration Department's Web site shows 3,694 people arrived by boat between January 3 and August 23 this year -- before the Government's decision to stop the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa from entering Australian waters.

The Government does not publish the number of people who are part of the Pacific Solution. However, the Herald estimates that figure is about 1,800, including almost 800 asylum seekers at Nauru, 540 at Christmas Island, about 100 in the Cocos Islands, 216 in Papua New Guinea and 131 from the Tampa sent to New Zealand, many of whom have been given refugee status. This brings the total to about 5,500.

About 630 asylum seekers were turned back by the Australian Navy this year, and about 350 asylum seekers died in October after their boat sank.

The Government had budgeted, pre-Tampa, for 5,500 boat arrivals this financial year, estimating in May that the boat people problem was not as serious as it had anticipated. The previous financial year it had budgeted for more than 8, 000 arrivals.

Some 4,175 people came to Australia by boat in the 1999-2000 financial year and 4,141 in 2000-2001. However, in calendar years the numbers have been smaller – 2,937 people arrived by boat in 2000 and 3,724 in 1999.

The Immigration Department says only 1,212 boat people officially arrived on Australian soil this financial year, but with the Pacific Solution taken into account, that figure is closer to 3,000.

The cyclone season is to hit over the next three months, discouraging boat travel. Last year there were only four small boat arrivals in January and none in February.

The Government has argued that the number of boat arrivals would have been at a higher level had it not been for the Pacific Solution.

The Opposition's immigration spokeswoman, Julia Gillard, said yesterday that Labor refused to accept that the Pacific Solution was an effective deterrent.

She predicted a likely drop-off in boat arrivals next year if the new Government in Afghanistan could stabilize the country.

Ms. Gillard said Labor would pursue the real cost of the Pacific Solution, which the Government has put at an extra AU$ 150 million (US$ 76,338,000) for this financial year.

The Government has denied a report by the ABC that the cost would be as high as AU$ 500 million (US$ 254,460,000).

A spokesman for the Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, denied yesterday that the recent freeze on asylum applications from Afghans meant that people who were picked up by the Tampa were in a better position than Afghans who arrived beforehand.

While the fate of Afghans detained on the mainland remains undecided, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has indicated the UN will continue to process the applications of the Tampa asylum seekers on Nauru, with some likely to be granted refugee status soon.

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

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