Afghan refugees land in Nauru but 'still want to go to Australia'

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The Independent Online

They emerged haggard and dishevelled, some of them barefoot, carrying their belongings in black plastic binliners. They walked behind a banner thanking the Nauruan government for its hospitality but said they still wanted to go to Australia.

They emerged haggard and dishevelled, some of them barefoot, carrying their belongings in black plastic binliners. They walked behind a banner thanking the Nauruan government for its hospitality but said they still wanted to go to Australia.

After nearly a month at sea, the first of 433 Afghan asylum-seekers turned away by Australia set foot on dry land yesterday. They received a brief traditional welcome from garlanded Nauruan dancers before being whisked away on school buses to a detention centre in the bleak interior of the South Pacific island.

An asylum-seeker called Agah told journalists in an interview conducted through the wire fence at the makeshift refugee camp: "We heard in our country that Australia is the government which accepts the people ... easily.

"But when we saw the situation it was completely wrong. The Australian government's behaviour was not good with us. Australia rejected us, they made us hopeless," he said.

About 100 people, mostly men, came ashore from the HMAS Manoora, an Australian Navy troop carrier that transported the refugees from Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. The remaining Afghans, and 233 mostly Iraqi asylum-seekers, will disembark over the next few days, although some are still reportedly resisting leaving the Manoora.

The Canberra government defied international opinion and refused to allow the Afghans to land on its remote outpost of Christmas Island after they were rescued from a sinking Indonesian ferry by the Norwegian freighter MS Tampa. The Iraqi refugees were picked up by an Australian naval patrol.

Australia has spent at least £12m preventing the Tampa's passengers from setting foot on its shores. About two-thirds of the refugees will have their asylum claims processed in Nauru by United Nations refugee officials; the remainder are to be flown to New Zealand.

As the first group arrived, Australian security guards kept the media at a distance, but reporters managed to hurl across their questions. "Yes, we still want to go [to Australia]," a young man called back. "Unfortunately Australia closed the door for us."

The Afghans also criticised the way they had been treated by the Australian government and said conditions aboard the Manoora were poor.

The dancers and piped music were provided by Rene Harris, the Nauran President, who wrote yesterday to all foreign journalists in Nauru, urging them not to reveal the asylum-seekers' identities.

He offered the mystifying explanation that "we must be vigilant because of unsavoury groups who could use the media in the asylum-seeking process to gain access to target states."

The Afghans were ferried ashore on two Navy landing craft and last night sat down to a meal of halal beef, which was flown from Australia.

Their temporary camp in the desolate centre of the island, which has been ravaged by decades of phosphate mining, includes sanitation blocks and kitchen facilities. The processing of their asylum claims will begin today.

The Australian government, which refused entry to the Tampa as part of a crackdown on unauthorised asylum-seekers, won an appeal against a court ruling that it acted illegally.

But the legal saga might not be over. While the civil liberties groups that took action on behalf of the asylum-seekers announced yesterday that they would not launch a counter-appeal, a Melbourne lawyer, Eric Vadarlis, said he planned to seek leave to appeal to the High Court.

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