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Australia May Pay Iraqi Exiles to Return Home - 2003-04-14

Australia is considering paying thousands of Iraqi asylum seekers to return home. Authorities are discussing repatriation aid similar to that offered to Afghan refugees last year.

Australia's repatriation package will be used to encourage more than four-thousand Iraqi exiles to go home. Many were forced to flee persecution during the years of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. Most hold temporary protection visas, which are renewable and last for three-years.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock says details of the package are being discussed. "I have raised, with the prime minister, the question of whether we should put together a package at this stage, which would be in this form that we provide a reintegration package, pay fares, provide some financial support for people who elect to go," says Mr. Ruddock.

The government says no one will be forced to return. But Mr. Ruddock has hinted that extension applications for many visas would have to be carefully considered in light of the fall of Saddam Hussein. He acknowledges, though, that some Iraqis in Australia still have legitimate claims for asylum, despite the end of the government.

Any repatriation program would be unlikely to start for many months, given the current instability in Iraq.

The Refugee Council of Australia has criticized the plans. Refugee advocates argue that sending Iraqi refugees home now is premature. Opposition politicians are seeking assurances the government will not pressure Iraqi asylum seekers to return to their war-torn country.

Australia offered airline tickets and cash grants to hundreds of Afghan asylum seekers after the fall of Taleban government in 2001.