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By Bob Burton

CANBERRA, Australia (January 11, 2002 – Asia Times Online/Inter Press Service)---The tiny South Pacific nation of Nauru fears that Australia plans to duck responsibility for accepting as refugees many of the 1,118 asylum seekers who were forcibly relocated by Australian military forces to Nauru during last year's racially charged election campaign.

Nauru's President Rene Harris reacted with surprise to media reports that the Australian government may leave in his country many of those found by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and Australian immigration officials to be genuine refugees -- in the hope that governments other than Australia will accept them.

On a brief visit to Melbourne on Wednesday, Harris said that he would like the asylum seekers to be repatriated from Nauru -- some 4,000 kilometers (2,400 miles) northeast of Australia and the world's smallest republic with just 10,000 people -- by mid-May.

"We would prefer that they stick to the agreement," Harris said. "The land which we have given to them -- we asked the landowners of Nauru to lease the land up until May -- so we prefer that it ends in May, because that is how we decided with our people."

Prior to accepting the asylum seekers late last year, the government of Nauru negotiated an agreement with the Australian government in return for financial support. The agreement states that "Australia will ensure that all persons taken by Nauru will have left within as short a time as is reasonably necessary to complete the humanitarian endeavors referred to in this statement of principles."

Australian Minister for Immigration Phillip Ruddock said on Tuesday that Australia will only accept its "fair share" of those on Nauru deemed to be refugees.

The UNHCR is now assessing the refugee claims of some 300 people from the Norwegian container ship the MV Tampa, which was stormed by Australian Special Air Service personnel in August to prevent it landing on Australian soil. The asylum seekers, mostly Afghans, had been rescued from a sinking fishing boat. In a frantic attempt to resolve the crisis, the Australian government announced the "Pacific Solution," involving the diversion of asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters to those Pacific nations willing to take them on a short-term basis in return for financial support.

While the UNHCR agreed to assess those from the Tampa, it required that the Australian government assess the refugee applications of another 800 asylum seekers that were forcibly relocated to Nauru and a further 216 sent to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. The Australian government has been coy about the exact costs of the whole operation, which some estimate as exceeding US$ 400 million.

The executive director of the Refugee Council of Australia, Margaret Piper, is dismayed by what she calls skewed priorities. "Iran has 2.5 million asylum seekers and gets $30 million from the international community. Now we are spending -- if the estimates are correct -- between $350 million-$400 million on trying to keep out a couple of thousand people," she said.

"If we were to spend even a portion of that helping Iran, these people would not have to look to the smugglers to get on the boats to come halfway around the world to risk their lives to get to somewhere where they have protection."

Next week the UNHCR plans to announce the results of its processing of 216 Iraqis that were relocated to Nauru. While Ireland has agreed to accept 50 of those found to be refugees, no other countries have indicated interest in the remainder.

"Other countries are not going to be falling over themselves to come in and pick up these people because they see it as being squarely Australia's responsibility," Piper added.

Given the absence of other countries coming forward to take in more refugees, the Australian government is preparing for the likelihood that most of the refugees it refuses to accept will be stranded in Nauru for a considerable period of time.

"That's the way in which it's done," Ruddock said. "There are 12 million refugees in the world. We have a program for 12,000 people and you process people to the places that you have available and other countries will process people to the places that they have available, and the timeframes are fixed in large part by that availability."

It is a prospect that appalls Piper, who points to people who were accepted as refugees by the UNHCR, but are still languishing in Indonesia.

"We have had the situation where refugees in Indonesia have been sitting around for a couple of years waiting for resettlement places. These are people who were intercepted en route to Australia under an agreement between Indonesia and Australia and two years later, the vast majority of them are still sitting around," she points out.

With the prospect of a longer stay in Nauru for those found to be refugees, the Australian government faces further international criticism.

"I have no doubt that Ruddock called in the UNHCR in the belief that they would be much tougher than the Australian decision makers [in processing asylum requests]," Piper explained. "It would seem the UNHCR is going to find the majority of these people to be refugees and Ruddock is now not wanting to abide by the umpire's decision."

For additional reports from the Asia Times, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Asia Times Online: Oceania.

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