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Australian Visas to Indonesian Asylum Seekers Angers Jakarta


The Australian government has granted temporary visas to 42 Indonesian asylum seekers, in a move Jakarta called "disappointing," and despite the urging of the Indonesian president to send them home instead.

Australian Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said the 42 asylum seekers from Indonesia's far eastern province of Papua have been granted temporary protection visas, allowing them to stay in Australia for three years.

Vanstone says no decision has been made on the 43rd member of the group.

The 43 landed on a remote beach in Northeastern Australia last year after spending five days at sea in a traditional outrigger canoe.

They accuse the Indonesian military of committing genocide in Papua Province, and say it will be dangerous for them to return home.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had personally called Australian Prime Minister John Howard over the affair. He told Mr. Howard the group faced no danger, and should be returned to Indonesia.

Indonesian presidential spokesman Dino Djalil says the government is disappointed by Australia's decision to let the Papuans stay.

"The Indonesian government is surprised and disappointed with the decision by the Australian department of immigration ... We have told the Australian government that they are not being prosecuted, they are not on our list of criminals, they are not being sought by our authority, and ... we feel that the granting of the temporary visas is lacking in legal merit," Dino says.

Jakarta has been fighting a low-level insurgency in Papua for three decades, and has effectively denied journalists, rights workers, and other independent monitors access to the region.

Human-rights groups and some foreign governments accuse the Indonesian military of committing grave abuses against the Papuan civilian population.

Secretary of the Australia West Papuans Association in Sydney, Joe Collins, says that despite Jakarta's assurances the Papuans had cause for worry:

"That they may have been sent back to West Papua, where of course they would not be received very well, no matter what Indonesia might say," Collins says.

Indonesian lawmakers joined their government in condemning Canberra's decision on Thursday.

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