Australians may force Iraqis to leave refugee ship

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The United Nations refugee agency has urged Australia not to use force to remove 217 mainly Iraqi asylum-seekers from a navy ship off the South Pacific island of Nauru.

But with some of those who have been on board HMAS Manoora for the past week reportedly saying they would rather die than disembark there, a violent confrontation seems likely.

The government said on Sunday that the remaining passengers would have to get off.

Warren Entsch, a backbench member of the federal parliament, suggested yesterday that they should be starved off. "They should be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and dragged off," he said. "One way of convincing them would be to stop feeding them. If they want the food, it's on the beach. It's as simple as that."

The Iraqis were intercepted by a naval patrol on their way to Australia and transferred to the Manoora, which was already on the way to Nauru with 433 Afghans rescued from the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa. The plan was for their asylum claims to be assessed on Nauru, with those of the Afghans. The latter, who were refused permission to land on Australian territory, have gone ashore and taken up residence in a makeshift refugee camp. But most of the second group are still demanding to be taken to Australia.

MPs were due to sit all night last night to push through parliament six new Bills that will toughen an already strict refugee regime. The Bills, condemned by critics as inhumane and unworkable, will narrow the definition of a refugee and introduce harsher penalties for people smuggling. They will also remove outlying territories from Australia's migration zone, making asylum claims far more difficult.

William Maley, chairman of the Refugee Council of Australia, said that yesterday was "a dark day in Australia's legislative history ... an occasion on which repressive and abominable legislation is being rushed through parliament for purely domestic political reasons". John Howard's government, which is about to seek re-election, has boosted its popularity by taking a hardline stance on asylum-seekers.

Mr Maley said that photographs of Afghans on Nauru showed they were Hazaras, an ethnic minority singled out by the ruling Taliban for persecution.

In the year ending 30 June about 4,100 asylum-seekers arrived on Australian shores. Mostly from the Middle East, and increasingly from Afghanistan, they travel via Indonesia.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in the first three months of the year, 2,386 people applied for asylum in Australia, compared with 21,054 in Germany, 17,000 in Britain and 15,000 in America.