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Asylum seekers begin new journey

CHRISTMAS ISLAND, Australia (CNN) -- Hundreds of asylum seekers stranded for more than a week aboard a Norwegian freighter off Australia's Christmas Island are bound for Papua New Guinea.

Two small barges on Monday ferried the 433 refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, to an Australian troop carrier, the HMAS Manoora.

The journey to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea will take about a week.

From there, as many as 150 will be flown to New Zealand and the rest to the island of Nauru where they will be processed and their refugee status determined.

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The asylum seekers have been stranded off the coast of Australia's Christmas Island after being rescued from their sinking vessel by the Norwegian ship, the Tampa.

The Tampa rescued the refugees on August 26 when their Indonesian vessel began to sink.

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The group then forced the ship's skipper to head for Australian waters, but the passengers' fate was thrown into limbo when Australia refused to let the ship dock.

The Australian Government barred the asylum seekers from entering Australian shores and sent troops onto the ship to prevent them disembarking.

Court case continues

However, the final destination of the asylum seekers remains in limbo.

The federal court in Melbourne is considering a request to have their refugee status determined in Australia. But the lawyer representing the asylum seekers agreed to their transfer off the Tampa.

"May I say to you, your honor, that for our part the overriding concern is that the physical condition of the refugees be alleviated as early as possible," said Julian Burnside QC, for the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties.

"This arrangement seems to secure that result without compromising the legal rights we seek to enforce for their benefit."

The deal was announced in court after overnight talks between human rights groups and the Australian Government.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said the Manoora was a much more comfortable ship than the Norwegian cargo vessel the refugees were currently aboard.

"It's a large troop ship that has extensive medical facilities on board," he said.

If the court should rule in favor of the asylum seekers, and after all appeals are exhausted, the Australian government has said it would be prepared to process them through the country's immigration system.

Several legal issues must still be considered, such as whether the asylum seekers were within the "migration zone" -- that is, legally allowed to migrate to shore -- and concern that if they are allowed to land, their claims would supersede other asylum requests.

Lawyers have argued the asylum seekers entered the "migration zone," and thus the Australian immigration process, once Australian commandos boarded the Tampa last week.

Government officials hope to deter the booming arrival asylum seekers from nearby Indonesia and Malaysia.

Christmas Island's nearest neighbor is Indonesia's Java Island, 224 miles (360 km) away.

The Norwegian cargo vessel was expected to resume its interrupted voyage from Singapore to Australia soon after the final asylum seekers left the vessel.

Australian authorities will scan the Tampa for stowaways and complete formalities before allowing the freighter to continue its voyage.

U.N. accepts plan

Australia has faced strong criticism over the handling of the asylum seekers on board the Norwegian freighter, including from Norway and U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson.

However, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said Sunday he found the Australian plan for transferring the asylum seekers to other Pacific nations for processing acceptable.

"Our main concern is that the refugees are treated humanely and their treatment respects the refugee protection laws, and we have been given the assurance by the Australians that they intend to do that," Annan told a news conference in the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital Kinshasa.

"So we hope that the operations go smoothly and the refugees on the boat find refuge soon," he said.






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