ASYLUM seekers moved to new ship, scheduled to sail to Papua New Guinea for processing

Monday, September 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHRISTMAS ISLAND, Australia (AP) _ Hundreds of refugees barred from Australia were ferried from the freighter that rescued them to a troop carrier that was to sail for Papua New Guinea, the next stop in their quest for asylum.

Unless a federal court rules that Australia must accept them, the asylum seekers will fly from there to New Zealand and the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru, where their applications for asylum will be processed.

Australian military personnel used two barges and two inflatable speedboats to move the more than 430 asylum seekers _ women and children first _ between the two ships that stood nearly two miles apart off Australia's remote Christmas Island.

``It went off remarkably smoothly,'' said Don O'Donnell, harbor master at Christmas Island, 1,550 miles west of the nearest major Australian city, Darwin. ``I am sure we now have a very happy prime minister.''

The transfer took two and a half hours and was completed just before dusk. It was the latest chapter in the saga of the asylum seekers _ most of them from Afghanistan _ who were plucked from a foundering Indonesian ferry by the Norwegian freighter Tampa a week ago.

Australia refused to accept the asylum seekers, saying it wants to stem a tide of would-be immigrants. Prime Minister John Howard's adamant position sparked widespread criticism of Australia.

The asylum seekers, who include several pregnant women, spent a week camped out on the freighter's deck, seeking shelter from the harsh tropical sun under tarps and in empty cargo containers.

When the Tampa's captain defied Australia and entered its territorial waters seeking humanitarian aid for the refugees, Howard ordered 50 commandos to storm the ship.

On Saturday, Howard negotiated a deal to send them to New Zealand and Nauru, which have agreed to take the refugees in and to assess their eligibility for asylum.

Monday's transfer came after a federal court lifted an injunction filed as part of a suit challenging the Australian government's refusal to allow the refugees into the country.

The Manoora was expected to leave later Monday night or early Tuesday and take about a week to reach Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea.

However, the refugees cannot be moved from ship to shore there until the conclusion of the federal court hearing in Melbourne, Australia, which is expected Wednesday or Thursday.

If the court finds Australia must accept the asylum seekers and process their requests for refugee status, the Manoora would be ordered to return them to Australia.

If not, about 150 of the asylum seekers will go to New Zealand for processing, and the rest to Nauru, where representatives of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees will assess their asylum applications. Australia has said it will take some of those who are granted refugee status.

Australia has also said it would bear the cost for Nauru, a tiny island 4,500 miles east of Christmas Island with a population of less than 12,000.

Ahead of the transfer operation, navy helicopters buzzed over the Manoora, stocking it with water, food, lifejackets and other supplies for the voyage. The 530-foot Manoora can transport 450 troops and 180 crew and is equipped with a hospital, landing craft and four helicopters.

The refugees were told Sunday of the plan to take them to New Zealand and Nauru for processing.

``They are quite happy with the idea of something moving forward,'' said Richard Danziger, of the United Nations' International Organization for Migration, after speaking with some of the refugees. Howard's plan on Sunday.

Australia's actions have attracted unprecedented international criticism, including from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

``This is not a way to handle a refugee situation,'' Annan said Saturday in Durban, South Africa, where he was attending a U.N. conference on racism.

Facing an election late this year, Howard has been adamant about not allowing the migrants to land, claiming his refusal will send a signal to people smugglers that Australia will not tolerate their illegal trade.

Critics claim he is pandering to resentment among voters about immigrants and the rising cost of asylum seekers. Over the past year, more than 4,000 asylum seekers, mostly from the Middle East, have been ferried to Australia from Indonesia by smuggling gangs.