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Oxfam Criticizes Australia for Shipping Refugees to Pacific Neighbors - 2002-02-04

International aid agency Oxfam has accused the Australian government of treating its Pacific neighbors like "prostitutes" with its detention camps for illegal immigrants in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. More than 1,500 people are being held on the island nations while their claims for refugee status are processed.

The Oxfam report likens Australia's sponsorship of detention camps in the Pacific to offering money to a prostitute, who accepts out of desperation.

The aid agency says the so-called "Pacific Solution" for Australia's problem of illegal migrants damages its reputation and adds to regional instability.

Australia set up camps on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, where 446 mainly Iraqi asylum seekers are housed. In a deal that includes about $15 million in aid, the tiny island state of Nauru took in about 1,000 illegal immigrants.

The Australian navy picked up the migrants from boats sailing from Indonesia, under tough border controls the conservative government of John Howard introduced six months ago.

Andrew Hewett, the chief executive of Oxfam Community Aid Abroad, accuses the government of dumping asylum seekers on countries ill equipped to deal with them. "There's about 1,100 refugees currently on Nauru, that's about 10% of the total population. Think of Australia, that would be about 2 million refugees in Australia," he says. "That gives a sense of the instability that we cause, the disruption we cause...on a country that already has problems with clean water and sustainable livelihoods and the like."

Prime Minister Howard denies Oxfam claims that the policy of shipping illegal immigrants to Papua New Guinea and Nauru amounts to "people smuggling". He insists the policy will not be changed, despite domestic and international criticism.

Pope John Paul has added his voice to a growing sense of disquiet over the detention of asylum seekers, especially children.

The government says the money spent on the camps boosts the economies of Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock is in the middle of a tour of the detention camps in the Pacific. Mr. Ruddock aims to strengthen the policy of detaining the migrants off shore. His diplomacy appears to be working, Papua New Guinea has agreed to house 784 more asylum seekers.

Australia accepts thousands of legal asylum seekers every year, but its policy of mandatory detention for illegal migrants has attracted widespread criticism, especially from the United Nations. Tuesday, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer meets U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson in Geneva for what is expected to be a frank discussion of the policy.