A group of Afghan asylum seekers who survived an explosion that killed five people in the Timor Sea are to be granted refugee status in Australia. The government, however, has signaled it will deport anyone convicted of causing the explosion, which investigators suspect was sabotage.
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In April, a boat carrying 47 Afghan asylum seekers was rocked by an explosion that killed five men and injured almost everyone else on board.
The Australian navy, which found the vessel about 600 kilometers off Australia's northwest coast, was escorting it when the blast occurred.
Earlier this month, police said that passengers had deliberately started a fire after the boat was intercepted. Despite suspicions of sabotage, senior officers ruled there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone with a crime.
Two Indonesian crewmen, however, have been accused of people smuggling.
Immigration officials have assessed the asylum applications of the surviving passengers and have granted them refugee status.
Immigration Minister Chris Evans says police had no objections to the men being granted permanent residency.
"It wasn't appropriate to continue to have these men in detention. There is no charge laid against any of them and there may never be so," said Evans. "So, and the Northern Territory Police weren't suggesting anyone was likely to be charged just that that possibility might arise if the coroner found evidence that they hadn't uncovered, so there is no impediment as far as the Northern Territory Police were concerned to these men being granted refugee status and so that has occurred."
Refugee advocates say the men would have faced human rights abuses had they been forced to return to Afghanistan. However, if any are eventually convicted of causing the explosion Australian officials have indicated they would be deported.
Twenty of the men are being held in immigration detention in Brisbane, while the rest are incarcerated in the western Australian city of Perth. They are expected to be released later this week with residency visas and will be re-settled with help from the federal government.
Conservative politicians in Australia accuse Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of being soft on illegal immigration because he ended mandatory detention for asylum seekers who enter the country illegally. He also changed the rules so that those found to be genuine refugees could receive permanent, instead of temporary, visas.
Several people-smuggling boats have been intercepted this year in Australian waters. Authorities predict that unrest in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan will force thousands of people to seek refuge in Western countries, including Australia.
Canberra resettles about 13,000 refugees under official humanitarian programs each year.