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Australia to Help Afghan Detainees Willing to Return Home - 2002-01-31

The Australian government is willing to give Afghan detainees aid if they return to their home land.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard says the government will offer financial aid to Afghan asylum seekers who are willing to return home.

The money would help them resettle in their war-ravaged country and rebuild their lives. Mr. Howard, however, did not say how much aid would be given.

Mr. Howard made the offer in a meeting in New York with Hamid Karzai, the head of Afghanistan's interim government.

"I indicated to him [Karzai] that Australia would be willing to provide resettlement assistance, given the state of the economy in Afghanistan, for any Afghani citizens who've come to Australia and who've been judged not to be refugees. I won't propose a figure on it, but it would be sensible, it would be useful for people who're going back," Mr. Howard said.

The offer came just hours after the Australian government managed to convince angry asylum seekers to give up their hunger strikes and other protests. More than 300 asylum seekers who had entered the country illegally had participated in the protests at a detention facility in the desert town of Woomera.

After two weeks of escalating tensions, government negotiators Wednesday pledged that the migrants' applications for asylum would be processed fairly and openly. The government, however, did not ease its policy of detaining asylum seekers who enter the country illegally.

Up to 4,000 asylum seekers could benefit from Mr. Howard's plan of financial aid, although the Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation it is too early to know how many would be interested.

"To assume that all of them would take advantage of an opportunity of that sort would, I think, be perhaps naive, but it would be of that order," he said.

The Australian government accepts about 10,000 refugees a year through approved resettlement programs. But to stem a flow of illegal boat people into the country, it automatically detains those who arrive without proper approvals.