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Australia Transfers Illegal Migrants to Navy Ship - 2001-09-03

An Australian navy ship received more than 400 asylum seekers from a cargo ship off remote Christmas Island Monday. The group had been stranded off Australia for more than a week while various governments argued over where the illegal migrants would be allowed to enter. A federal court in Australia said the more than 400 mostly Afghan asylum seekers could be transferred from the Norwegian cargo ship Tampa to an Australian Navy carrier. The move comes while the court decides if the Australian government acted lawfully last week when it refused entry to the illegal migrants.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard says the asylum seekers will be more comfortable on the navy ship, Manoora. "Troops often spend weeks on that vessel," he said. "It has two or three operating theaters, it has plenty of medical facilities, and the facilities of course on the [carrier] Manoora are far better and far more comfortable than on the [cargo ship] Tampa."

The court is not expected to rule until Wednesday. The case was brought by civil rights groups trying to force Australia to decide on the asylum seekers' claims for refugee status rather than offload them to third countries.

Australia wants to ship the group to Papua New Guinea and then fly then to New Zealand and Nauru, which have agreed to process their asylum claims. New Zealand will accept 150 people - mostly women, children and family groups. Those found to be genuine refugees will be allowed to settle in New Zealand permanently. Nauru has agreed to accept the rest, although those found to be refugees will be dispersed to third countries, including Australia.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard is refusing to speculate on what his government will do if the federal court rules against it. "I don't want to hypothesize," he said. "We maintain that the application has no legal basis, and we continue to oppose it vigorously and will continue to do so as vigorously as the legal circumstances allow."

The migrants were being smuggled when the Norwegian ship rescued them from a sinking Indonesian ferry on August 26. Australia's refusal to accept them sparked days of international negotiations about what country would take the group.

Australia was widely criticized for not accepting the migrants; but at home, surveys show strong support for the government's hardline stance against them.

The Australian government believes up to 5,000 asylum seekers are now in Indonesia preparing to attempt to enter Australia illegally aboard vessels chartered by people smugglers.

Australia is also planning to increase military surveillance of its vast northern coastline in an effort to intercept asylum seekers before they arrive.