NEW ZEALAND, Nauru, to accept asylum seekers stranded off coast of Australia

Saturday, September 1st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHRISTMAS ISLAND, Australia (AP) _ New Zealand and the Pacific island state of Nauru agreed Saturday to accept more than 400 asylum seekers stranded on a cargo ship in the Indian Ocean, breaking a six-day diplomatic deadlock over the fate of the refugees.

The asylum seekers _ mostly Afghans _ were adrift in a leaky Indonesian ferry when the Norwegian cargo ship Tampa rescued them on Monday. But when the freighter tried to deliver them to remote Christmas Island, Australia refused to accept them.

When the Tampa ventured closer to the port on Wednesday, Prime Minister John Howard ordered elite commandos to storm the ship. Widely criticized for the action, Australia engaged in frenzied negotiations with other countries to solve the crisis while still saving face by not allowing the migrants to come ashore.

Howard rejected a U.N. plan proposed Friday that called for the group to disembark temporarily on Christmas Island. Saturday's agreement calls for 150 of the estimated 460 refugees to go to New Zealand. The remainder would go to Nauru, a tiny island about 4,500 miles east of Christmas Island.

Australia would bear the cost for Nauru, Howard said. Australia is a major trading partner for Nauru, an 8 1/2-square-mile island with a population of less than 12,000. The major industry there is phosphate mining.

Howard said he had informed the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees of the plan after speaking on the phone with New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and Nauru president Rene Harris.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said the agency was waiting to learn details of the plan before reacting, and representatives from the nations involved were to meet in Geneva.

``As far as we're concerned, Christmas Island is still the most logical place for at least temporary disembarkation, but that's without having heard the details,'' Redmond told The Associated Press.

Clark said in a statement that asylum seekers sent to her country who were found to be genuine refugees would be allowed resettlement as part of New Zealand's annual refugee quota.

Those going to Nauru and found to be genuine refugees would be resettled in third countries, including Australia, she said.

``New Zealand will be working closely with Australia and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to arrange transshipment of the refugees to New Zealand,'' she said.

Though Howard had earlier insisted that none of the asylum seekers would be allowed into Australia, he said Saturday that some who are found to be genuine refugees may be allowed to apply for residency.

Norway's ambassador to Australia, Ove Thorsheim, visited the freighter on Friday and said the refugees appeared to be in good condition, although three people were being treated for dehydration. Most, he said, were determined to go to Australia.

``They are very tired. They have been on the run from one month up to eight months,'' Thorsheim said. ``They are very determined to come to Australia. Nowhere else will do.''

Australia is a popular destination for refugees, mainly from the Middle East and South Asia, because they believe courts there are generous in granting visas.

It was not clear how the refugees would be transported to New Zealand and Nauru. Shipping line Wallenius Wilhelmsen, which owns the Tampa, said the freighter was in no condition for such a voyage, and legally could carry only 40 passengers.

Australia is now trying to find third countries that will allow the asylum seekers to transit through on their way to New Zealand and Nauru. The government has not yet explained how it will get the asylum seekers off the ship.

Howard, who is seeking re-election this year amid popular resentment over the flood of asylum seekers, maintains his determination to keep the migrants from touching Australian soil will send a signal to people-smuggling gangs.

Last year, more than 4,000 people arrived illegally on Australia's shores through the people smuggling networks. Most came from the Middle East via Indonesia.

Howard's critics say his tough stance is a cynical political exercise ahead of the national elections, expected in November or December. Most major opinion polls show the government likely to lose the election.

All of Australia's major churches and human rights groups pleaded with the government to allow the migrants to land. On Christmas Island, hundreds of residents staged a demonstration Friday, demanding Australian authorities relent.

``The government has to stop what has become a circus to win the racist vote at the next election,'' said protest organizer Gordon Thomson. Many in the crowd were angry that their small port had been closed by the military, stopping them from going fishing.