Bizarre solution for refugee boat brings new problems in its wake

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The Independent Online

An unexpected and bizarre resolution to the refugee crisis in the Indian Ocean was in sight yesterday after Australia persuaded New Zealand and the pollution-ravaged South Pacific nation of Nauru to take in some 430 asylum-seekers rescued by the Norwegian freighter MS Tampa.

The plan, which envisages the mainly Afghan migrants being processed in the two countries to determine their refugee status, would break the week-long diplomatic deadlock without loss of face by the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard. He has insisted that the asylum-seekers, who left Indonesia in a leaky wooden ferry, will not be allowed on to Australian soil.

But it was not clear last night how they will reach their destinations. Nauru is 3,700 miles east of the Tampa's location off Christmas Island, a remote Australian outpost north-west of Perth. New Zealand is only marginally closer. The company that owns the freighter, Wallenius Wilhemsen, said it was not in a condition to make the journey, while aid agencies expressed concern over the sick and demoralised asylum-seekers being subjected to another long voyage.

If the plan goes ahead, about 150 women, children and family members will be taken to New Zealand and, if their claims for asylum are granted, subsequently resettled there. The rest of the passengers will be processed by Australian immigration officials in Nauru, a tiny, environmentally devastated island that consists of little more than a near-exhausted phosphate mine. Those recognised as refugees will be resettled in several nations including Australia.

Nauru's phosphate deposits were systematically stripped by Germany, Britain and Australia. Most of the island, just eight miles square, has been stripped bare, the entire centre a moonscape of toxic coral pinnacles. The mining has also left it heavily contaminated: even drinking water has to be imported from Australia. The island's other claim to notoriety is as an international money laundering centre.

The island's 10,000 people are squeezed into a narrow coastal strip just 300 yards wide at its broadest point. But the president of Nauru, Rene Harris, said that his country was delighted to help. "The bottom line is we are dealing with 300 human lives," he said. "Nauruans are a caring people."