WELLINGTON, New Zealand (Radio Australia, Jan. 15) – Some 150 Afghan refugees will leave camps in Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea this week, bound for New Zealand.

Their departure will ease tensions following a Christmas Eve clash on Manus between asylum seekers and PNG soldiers.

After the Tampa crisis of September 2001, more than 1,500 asylum seekers were sent to camps in Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. About 400 mostly Afghan refugees seeking refuge in Australia were rescued from a sinking ship off Christmas Island in September 2001 by the Norwegian tanker Tampa. The asylum-seekers were refused by Australia, however, and sent to camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Since that time, numbers in the camps have dropped as people granted refugee status resettled in Australia, New Zealand and Sweden.

Over 250 people refused asylum have also returned voluntarily to Afghanistan.

Australia's Immigration Department reports that 580 people, mainly Afghans and Iraqis, were still detained in the camps in Nauru at the end of December.

Of these, 121 have been granted refugee status.

The remainder has been refused their request for asylum, and face repatriation to their home country.

In PNG, 94 out of 100 people remaining on Manus Island have gained refugee status, and await resettlement.

But now New Zealand has come to Australia's aid, offering to take more refugees from the camps.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff says New Zealand has made a commitment to help with the people that were originally on the Tampa.

"The goal was both to assist Australia overcome a very real problem with how to deal with the situation that existed at that time, and of course the humanitarian considerations for those who are deemed to be genuine asylum seekers," said Goff.

"New Zealand will be taking a further 150. I think a large number of them will be Iraqi, a smaller number of them will be Afgan."

By the end of 2002, New Zealand had taken 202 refugees from Manus and Nauru, Australia 312 and Sweden a further 12. Goff says New Zealand has focused its refugee program on the region.

"Well, New Zealand and Australia have both entered into commitments to help refugees under the United Nations Program for Refugees. We both work under quotas. New Zealand has a quota of about 750 formal refugees that come to our country each year."

"We take them from various parts of the world, but it occurred to us that taking people from our immediate region would be most helpful, particularly in terms of the work that both Australia and New Zealand are doing to help combat people trafficking and smuggling."

"We can assist people in the region - a region that includes people that are temporarily based in camps on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea who were on the Tampa."

Goff says most of the refugees have settled well into New Zealand society.

"I think most of the refugees that we've taken have settled in quite well. There are variations within the group. Some have quite a high level of education and a level of personal skills that enable them to find work and adapt quite readily," said Goff.

"Others have been through a somewhat traumatic experience. They have difficulties with language. They have skills that are not readily transferable into our labor market."

"The one area of our immigration policy where ability to settle in quickly is secondary to humanitarian concerns is of course our refugee policy. We expect in dealing with refugees, that we also have to deal with overcoming the particular difficulties that people have confronted for a period of time in their lives, and that means the settlement process will take longer than would normally be the case."

With people traveling to New Zealand this week, the number in the Manus camp will drop to less than 20, but the current arrangement between Australia and Papua New Guinea continues until October.

In Nauru, Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer signed a new agreement in December, extending the deal for 12 months under which 1,500 asylum seekers at a time can be held in the country.

Australia's aid agency AusAID says the new agreement with Nauru pledges a further A$14.5 million in development aid, for health, education and essential infrastructure, including power and water supply.

But there's a dilemma for Australia and the countries hosting the remaining asylum seekers. Many Iraqis, refused refugee status, are reluctant to return home voluntarily, given the looming conflict in the Middle East.

And the length of time that some people are detained is causing tension in some camps.

Riots and arson in five detention centers in Australia have caused over A$9 million of damage since mid-December.

January 15, 2003

For additional reports from Radio Australia, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/Radio Australia. 

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