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SYDNEY, Australia (April 9, 2002 – The Australian)---Just seven of the 292 Afghan refugees being detained by Australia on Nauru have been found to be genuine refugees.

It is expected that the remainder will be returned to their homes from the Central Pacific island beginning in July.

But there are no guarantees the seven assessed refugees will be allowed to settle in Australia unless they can prove they have relatives here.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said yesterday the seven would be re-settled overseas if they had no Australian links.

"If they don't have family links in Australia, they are not on the top of our list for resettlement," a spokesman said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees handed down its decision yesterday on the refugee status of 529 asylum seekers on Nauru, 301 of whom were rescued at sea last year by the Norwegian container ship MV Tampa.

The UNHCR also assessed the claims of 228 unauthorized immigrants taken from the Indonesian boat Aceng.

A total of 292 Afghan asylum seekers had their claims processed.

The UN body found 126 of the 201 asylum seekers of Iraqi origin to be refugees and 14 refugees from the remaining group of 36 immigrants of mixed origin.

Australia has spent half a billion dollars using the navy to intercept boat people and ferrying them to Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

The UNHCR said the seven successful claims were not determined by the fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

The UN body and the Australian Immigration Department said the 285 Afghan asylum seekers denied refugee status would have a chance to be re-interviewed and present new information about their claims in the light of changed circumstances in Afghanistan.

"UNHCR has asked countries not to return Afghans on an involuntary basis until June at the earliest, at which time UNHCR will review the situation on the ground," it said in a statement.

The Australian Government paid for the boat people to be processed on Nauru as part of its controversial "Pacific Solution."

The Immigration Department said 101 Iraqis and three people from other countries held on Manus Island in PNG also had been declared refugees. But it said there were no guarantees those refugees would settle in Australia.

"It is important to note that being found to be a refugee does not give a person a right to select their preferred country of protection and that people may not necessarily be resettled in Australia," the department said.

Mr. Ruddock said he had received positive indications from other countries about accepting the refugees. But he refused to reveal the countries, saying it could put pressure on them.

"We have indicated Australia will play its part in relation to resettlement," he said.

Asked how many refugees Australia would accept, Mr. Ruddock replied: "It's not a question of how many we'd take at this stage.

"It's a question of what would be reasonable and I'm exploring with other countries . . . their willingness to participate in resettling.

"There have been some positive indications from a number of countries already."

Mr. Ruddock's spokesman said priority for settlement in Australia would be given to refugees who had family here.

"People who have close linkages with Australia and who are found to be refugees would be considered for resettlement in Australia," he said.

The executive director of the Refugee Council of Australia, Margaret Piper, said the decision was not the end of the matter.

She said the UNHCR recognized the evolving situation in Afghanistan.

"Both the Immigration Department and the UNHCR have recognized the need to re-process."

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

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