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Australia Returns Asylum Seekers to Indonesia - 2003-11-09

The Australian navy has escorted a boat carrying 14 suspected asylum seekers back to Indonesia, where the group is now being held by local police. The wooden fishing boat with 14 suspected Kurdish asylum seekers and four Indonesian crew landed on Melville Island, an Aborigine-owned island about 80 kilometers north of Darwin.

Before the Kurds could claim to have reached Australia and lodge a claim for asylum, however, the Government passed regulations removing Melville and thousands of other northern islands from Australia's "migration zone," effectively denying asylum seekers who land there any right to apply for refugee visas.

The new law means asylum seekers must now reach the Australian mainland if they want to apply for refugee status. However, even then, controversial Australian laws provide for asylum seekers who arrive illegally to be detained until their claims can be processed, which can take up to several years.

The Australian navy made repairs to the Kurds' boat and towed it out of Australian waters and onto the high seas, and Australian Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said Sunday that the vessel had made its way safely back to Indonesia, where it originated.

Ms. Vanstone says the boat people are now on the Indonesian island of Yamdena, under the watch of the International Organization for Migration, the IOM.

"They are safe, they are in Indonesia, the IOM are there," she said. "They are in the care of the local police."

Senator Vanstone says the suspected asylum seekers can still apply for refugee status to Australia from Yamdena. But Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said that if they are from Turkey, as they claim to be, it is uncertain whether they would be eligible for asylum under any circumstances.

"You can only make assumptions about this," said Mr. Downer. "They came from Turkey, they didn't come from some battle zone."

Australia introduced tough immigration laws in 2001 after a spate of boats carrying hundreds of asylum seekers arrived on Australian soil.

The laws and the subsequent detention of hundreds of asylum seekers, including children, have evoked considerable criticism in Australia and abroad. The turning away of the 14 Kurds has brought another round of criticism.

The opposition parties have vowed to vote down the latest regulations -excising most of these islands - once the upper house of parliament resumes sitting later this month.