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UN: Ferry victims had legitimate refugee claims



By CNN's Grant Holloway

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- At least six of the passengers aboard an Indonesian ferry that sank last week, killing more than 350 people, had legitimate refugee claims recognized by the United Nations.

But those refugees chose to pay a people smuggler to take them to Australia because of delays in finding them a third country to live in.

While most of the asylum seekers aboard the doomed vessel were from the Middle East, those drowning victims who had been granted refugee status were from Kaiana in the troubled Indonesian province of Irian Jaya, a U.N. spokesperson told CNN Wednesday.

The refugees had been waiting since January this year for a third country to accept them and had got impatient, Kemala Ahwil, external relations officer for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Indonesia, said.

Normally such cases only took around six months to be completed, she said.

"I think these people were impatient. These people were getting reckless, impatient and not able to think straight anymore," Ahwil said.

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The unfortunate fate of the asylum seekers continued to generate headlines in Australia Wednesday, with the Australian government saying it knew who the people smuggler responsible for the ill-fated voyage was and that the government was willing to prosecute him.

Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the man was of Egyptian background and was behind other people smuggling operations.

Ruddock said his identity has been passed on to Indonesian authorities, but there had been no response back as yet.

He said Australia had offered to prosecute all people smugglers it knew about if Indonesia would allow them to be extradited.

Also Wednesday, Australia said it would consider accepting some of the survivors of last week's ferry tragedy, as well as taking 40 refugees already processed by the UN in Indonesia.

Criticism rejected

But Prime Minister John Howard rejected criticism, particularly from Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, that Australia was not doing enough to help with the international refugee dilemma.

"The way to deal with this problem is to help it at the source," Howard told radio listeners.

"Taking a few hundred extra is not going to make any real difference to that. 2.5 million people and what you have to try and do is to help the Government of Pakistan handle that problem," he said.

Howard also deflected suggestions that a poor political relationship between Australia and Indonesia was contributing to the problem of people smugglers.

"I spoke to the Indonesian president about this issue a couple of days ago. Whoever wins the election, if it's me, then I'm going to get in touch with her with a view to having a further discussion about this and other matters," he said.

"But I don't expect Indonesia to quickly change its position because, being quite honest about it, Indonesia's priorities are different from ours in relation to this."

Broader approach needed

Opposition Labor party foreign affairs spokesman Laurie Brereton said Wednesday he would travel to Indonesia within Labor's first 10 days, if it won power at elections to be held on Nov. 10, to pursue an improvement in the relationship between the two countries.

He said with Indonesia's support, Labor would hold a summit to find a regional solution to the problems caused by the flow of asylum seekers to Australia.

UNHCR spokesperson in Australia Ellen Hansen told CNN Wednesday there needed to a broader, more holistic regional approach to combating the problem of people smuggling rather than just attempting to simply stop people arriving at a border.

"The lesson to be learnt from this tragedy is the need for a new sense of urgency to develop a strategy to combat people struggling," she said.

In the shorter term, what the UNHCR needed was more offers of resettlement for refugees in Indonesia who had already had their refugee status approved.

So far only 31 out of 421 refugees in Indonesia had been accepted for resettlement, with many of those people having waited more than a year for a country to accept them, she said.



 
 
 
 



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