Papua New Guinea in Aussie refugee deal

Aug. 15, 2011 at 6:18 AM
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PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea, Aug. 15 (UPI) -- Papua New Guinea will reopen a refugee processing center for Australia, even though an Australian court has thrown doubts over the Australian government's plan.

Papua's Foreign Affairs and Immigration Minister Ano Pala said the agreement with Australia is part of his country's efforts with neighboring states to stop illegal immigration in South Asia.

"The government has made commitments to take co-operative action with Australia to enhance the region's response to irregular migration and to combat people smuggling," he said.

Australia had been negotiating with the Papuan government this year to send refugees that arrive by boat in Australian waters to Papua New Guinea.

The Manus Center in PNG, operational from 2001-03, would be paid for by the Australian government.

A similar deal for sending refugees onward was signed with Malaysia in May.

But earlier this month the Australian High Court put a temporary stop to sending the first group of asylum seekers -- 16 people, mostly Pakistanis -- to Malaysia.

A hearing this month will determine if the program can continue or must face greater scrutiny over human rights issues because Malaysia isn't a signatory to the U.N. Refugee Convention.

Pala said any final agreement on the details would be subject to negotiations by Papuan government officials and also must be endorsed by Australia.

"PNG is not a target destination for illegal movement of people at this point in time," Pala said. "However, PNG would become a target destination when its economy develops and reaches a level that offers greater opportunities for outsiders looking for opportunities to better their lives."

He said it was important that any details to be agreed to would include the strengthening of PNG's other international border facilities and infrastructure development.

PNG, with a population of fewer than 7 million, lies off the northern tip of Australia and occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea. The western half of the island is Indonesian territory.

PNG has had close relations with Australia, which governed it until independence in 1975.

Australia has been pushing PNG to agree to a deal similar to the one struck with Malaysia under which Australia pays for the center's running costs and other expenses for processing the boat people.

The vast majority of the asylum seekers in Australia arrive in unseaworthy boats after a journey of thousands of miles and after paying human traffickers for the passage. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she hopes that the deal with Malaysia will send a message to would-be asylum seekers that their voyage would be fruitless.

Australia is ready to start sending as many as 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia over the next four years. In return, Australia will take 4,000 bona fide mostly Myanmar refugees from Malaysia.

Australia is wrestling with an annual influx of thousands of boat people. Australia's Department of Immigration said 134 boats carrying 6,535 people arrived in 2010.

But even before the Australian High Court's ruling, Gillard was facing heavy political fallout from opposition parties over the agreement's details and the estimated cost of financing the deportations.

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