The Pacific nation of Nauru has agreed to accept another 237 asylum seekers picked up by an Australian navy vessel on Friday. The group is on its way to Papua New Guinea along with more than 400 asylum seekers rescued by a Norwegian freighter last month after being turned away by Australia.
The Pacific nation Nauru agreed to accept an additional 237 asylum seekers in a meeting Monday with Australia's Defense Minister Peter Reith who is in Nauru.
Nauru had already agreed to take most of the 433 asylum seekers rescued by the Norwegian freighter, Tampa, last month. They were stranded off Australia's remote Christmas Island while the international community argued about which country should admit them.
Nauru will process the migrants' claims for refugee status; Australia will cover the cost. Those found to be genuine refugees will be sent to third countries, including Australia.
Canberra has promised Nauru a more than $10 million package in return for its agreement to take the migrants. Australia will provide new power generators for the tiny island nation and guarantee fuel supplies for the country.
In addition, the number of scholarships for Nauru students in Australia will be doubled, and Australia will write off $1 million in health care debts.
An Australian navy vessel intercepted the latest group of asylum seekers in international waters near Australia's Ashmore reef late Friday. Naval officers boarded their boat and transferred the 237 people onto another navy ship already on its way to Papua New Guinea.
The Australian government has since introduced legislation to excise Ashmore Reef and Christmas Island from Australia's migration zone, thereby denying asylum seekers who land there the right to apply for refugee status.
Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock has appealed to Australia's opposition parties to support the legislation, saying "people who come to either Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef from now will be processed in accordance with the same criteria that will be used if they were on Nauru, if they were in Indonesia, if they presented their claims in Malaysia, if the UNHCR dealt with their claims in Pakistan and Iran."
The navy ship carrying both groups of asylum seekers is expected to arrive in Papua New Guinea mid to late this week. The first asylum seekers could begin arriving in Nauru by week's end.
But an Australian court decision could still stop the transfer of asylum seekers. Australia's federal court is expected to rule any day now on whether the government breached its international obligations by refusing to allow the migrants to lodge asylum claims in Australia. The government has agreed to take them back if the court rules against it.