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Asylum Seekers Reach Nauru - 2001-09-19

The first group of asylum seekers refused entry by Australia last month has disembarked on the Pacific island nation, Nauru. Nauru has agreed to accept 520 asylum seekers until their refugee claims are decided.

The first group of about 100 asylum seekers were greeted onshore by Nauru government and immigration officials. They were then taken by bus to a hastily-built detention center in the heart of the 21-square-kilometer island.

Some in the group had banners thanking the Nauru Government for accepting them. Many also criticized Australia for refusing to take them, but added that they still hoped to go to Australia, if they are found to be genuine refugees. "Yeah, we want. If they accept, if they want, we want to go," said one asylum seeker.

Most of those who went ashore were among the 433 asylum seekers rescued by the Norwegian freighter Tampa last month, when their own boat began sinking near Australia's remote Christmas Island. Canberra refused entry to the mostly Afghan migrants and, instead, sent them on an Australian navy boat to Nauru and New Zealand.

The refugees are expected to stay in Nauru for up to six months, while their claims for refugee status are decided. Those still on board the Australian navy ship are expected to disembark over coming days.

Meanwhile, a legal battle over returning the Tampa asylum seekers to Australia may not be over. A full bench of Australia's Federal Court last week overturned an earlier ruling that the government bring all the Tampa asylum seekers back to Australia for processing. However, attorneys for some of the asylum seekers say they may appeal.

The Australian Parliament is soon expected to pass new legislation that would prohibit legal challenges against the government in cases similar to that of the Tampa asylum seekers. The government has also introduced laws to remove Christmas Island and other remote islands from Australia's migration zone, thereby denying illegal immigrants the right to apply for Australian refugee status if they land there.

This hard-line stance on asylum seekers has won the government of Prime Minister John Howard a huge boost in public opinion polls, just months away from general elections.