Australia eyes barren Pacific atoll as second refugee centre

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After persuading the tiny South Pacific nation of Nauru to take hundreds of unwanted asylum-seekers off its hands, Australia is now considering setting up another offshore refugee processing centre in an even unlikelier location: Kiribati.

The Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, said yesterday that Kiribati – 33 coral atolls strung across a vast expanse of the Pacific – had offered one of its islands as a place to screen boat people who arrive in Australia uninvited. He said the idea was being discussed in Canberra but no decision had yet been made.

Nauru is to receive an aid package worth about £8m for helping the government end its stand-off with the Afghan asylum-seekers rescued by the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa. Dirt-poor Kiribati, a former British colony known as the Gilbert Islands, presumably seeks a similar financial opportunity. It is not clear whether Australia approached Kiribati or vice versa, but some observers are shocked that the government is giving the idea serious thought.

Kiribati – which, like Nauru, is heavily dependent on Australian aid – is already over- crowded, with most of its 92,000 citizens living cheek-by-jowl on the main island of Tarawa. Few crops can be grown and the water supply is polluted.

On Nauru yesterday, the 433 Afghans refused entry by Australia were settling into their makeshift camp. But more than 200 Iraqis and Palestinians intercepted in a separate incident refused to leave HMAS Manoora, the Australian ship that took them to Nauru. Mr Downer said: "In the end, they've got to leave. They're not coming to Australia."

Demonstrations were held in Australia at the weekend to protest at proposed tough new anti-refugee laws. One organiser, Ian Rintoul, said: "It is sheer hypocrisy for the government to proclaim war on the Taliban for harbouring terrorists while persecuting those that are fleeing the Taliban."