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Australia scours Pacific for boat people help

By CNN's Grant Holloway
and wire services

CANBERRA, Australia -- The Australian Government has embarked on a wide-ranging diplomatic cruise of its Pacific Island neighbors searching for potential solutions for its deepening problems over illegal immigration.

While reluctant to discuss its plans in any detail, Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock confirmed to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Thursday that Pacific nation Fiji had been approached to help process asylum seekers.

And a spokesman for Ruddock's office later told Reuters that Australia had also approached Palau in the northwest Pacific and Kiribati in the South Pacific.

He would not say whether other Pacific island nations had been asked for help.

However, Fiji's Foreign Minister Kaliopate Tavola told the Fiji Post newspaper newspaper that Australia had spoken to a number of South Pacific island states, about funding centers to process boat people.

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"The talks are in the initial stages," Tavola said.

Tavola told media Thursday Fiji would only accept or decline the request after an assessment on the cost and benefits of accommodating the asylum seekers is complete.

The Australian Government is expected to foot the cost of any Fijian detention and processing center.

Having taken a hard-line stance against the boatloads of people arriving at Australia's remote island territories, the Government now has the difficult problem of finding somewhere other than Australian territory to process the asylum seekers' claims for refugee status.

The decision in August this year to not allow asylum seekers rescued by the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa to set foot on Australian soil has proved politically popular for John Howard's conservative coalition government, but the continued arrival of asylum seekers has resulted in considerable logistical problems.

The Tampa asylum seekers, and several subsequent boatloads of people, are being held and processed in New Zealand and an Australian-funded and built detention camp on the microscopic island nation of Nauru.

But the Nauru option is now at full capacity and New Zealand is reluctant to provide further assistance, prompting the Australian Government to search further afield.

Palauan Minister of State Temmy Shmull told The Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday that a formal request from Australia had been received on Oct. 3.

"Our initial reaction is Australia and Palau have a very strong relationship and we would consider cooperating," Shmull said.

High economic cost

Former Australian protectorate Papua New Guinea is also assisting with the processing of asylum seekers.

The Government's tough stance on asylum seekers has also had an economic impact.

Budget figures released Wednesday show the policy of intercepting and diverting the boat people to alternative destinations has so far cost $52 million (Aust. $103 million).

This figure does not include the cost of sending six frigates and several air force planes to Australia's northwest Indian Ocean shores to boost patrols for illegal immigrants.

• Australian Immigration

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