Australia to detain Burmese boatpeople on Nauru

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Location of remote island of Nauru, where Australia is sending 8 Burmese refugees

Eight Burmese boat people, who arrived off Western Australia's Ashmore Reef last week, say they wish to claim refugee status. The group of 8 men, aged between 24 and 40, are being held in detention on Christmas Island by the Australian Federal Government. They will be sent to Nauru after identity interviews and medical checks are completed.

According to The Age newspaper, the men are from a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border, and may be from the Karen tribe, who are battling Burma's brutal military Government. Karen rebels have been at war with the central Government for 57 years.

An Immigration department spokesman confirmed that the eight men claimed to be from Burma. Two of the men have contacted immigration lawyers, seeking assistance with asylum claims. David Manne, from Melbourne-based Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, said the other six were likely to do the same. "There's a very strong likelihood that they are genuine refugees," he said.

The men were first spotted by the Australian Customs Service at Ashmore Reef, 610km north of Broome, WA on August 13. They were sent by Navy vessel to Christmas Island - 2,400 km northwest of Perth, WA. The men have been held since Friday as part of the Howard Government's Pacific Solution to keep asylum seekers out of the country.

In 2005, the Department of Immigration began construction of an Immigration Reception and Processing Centre on Christmas Island, due for completion late in 2006. The facility is estimated to cost $210 million, and will contain 800 beds.

No Legal Recourse for Burmese

The news of the boat people's arrival became public last week as Prime Minister John Howard scrapped controversial new migration laws. The proposed laws would have excised the Australian mainland for immigration purposes.

Burma

Ashmore Reef, already excised from Australia's migration zone, means the men have no legal entitlement to be brought to Australia for processing. They have no access to the Australian court system to argue their claims or contest the rulings of the Immigration Department.

Mr Manne said he was concerned that the circumstances of the men's confinement could hamper their attempts to communicate with lawyers. He said the Burmese men should be afforded the same rights as the West Papuans or Vietnamese asylum-seekers who recently made it to Australian shores. "It's absolutely crucial these people be given a fair go, so that they can actually speak with us properly about the issues," he said. Mr Manne says he has made several requests of the Department of Immigration in Canberra.

"They're asylum seekers... they believe that they'd be persecuted if sent to Burma, and we have agreed to act on their behalf." He was unable to say whether the group was dropped off by people smugglers, as Immigration Minister Senator Amanda Vanstone claims.

"What we do know is they're seeking refugee status, that is, protection from brutal human rights abuse," he said. The Burmese regime has recently waged an aggressive attack on Karen insurgents - forcing thousands of villagers to hide in the jungle or seek refuge in Thailand. There are 140,000 refugees in seven camps along the Thai-Burma border.

Australian Greens Senator Kerry Nettle says the government must allow the Burmese group to be brought to Australia to process the asylum-seeker's claims. "The government needs to ensure that all asylum seekers are offered legal support," she said. "The best way to ensure the Burmese asylum seekers have full access to their lawyer is to bring them to Australia while their asylum claims are assessed."

Nauru

Meanwhile the near-bankrupt Nauru Government has urged Australia to "speed up asylum seeker processing" in their country. Nauru says Australia is taking far too long to process asylum seekers. Currently two refugees remain on Nauru - both Iraqi men. The men have been held in detention on the remote tiny island for five years.

According to The Age, the Nauru Government has approved a plan to impose financial penalties on Australia if asylum seekers are forced to languish on the near-bankrupt island. The report says if they have not been processed and either returned or resettled within three months, their visas will have to be renewed each month, with the cost increasing by $500 for each renewal.

Nauru's Foreign Minister David Adeang raised serious concerns about the mental state of the detainees. He says Muhammad Faisal's condition worsened sharply after he was re-interviewed by ASIO. Mr Adeang has asked for the Government to evacuate the Mr Faisal immediately, he says he is also concerned about the mental health of the other Iraqi man left on Nauru. The Australian Government claims advice from ASIO that the man may be a "security threat."

Nauru is the world's smallest island nation, covering just 21 km². Since 2001 it has accepted aid from the Australian government. In exchange for this aid, Nauru houses an 'offshore' detention centre for Australia.

Sources

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