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Australia accused of 'human trafficking'

The tiny island nation of Kiribati, one of the places Australia hopes to redirect asylum seekers  

SUVA, Fiji (CNN) -- Australia was using aid deals as a lure for Pacific nations to accept asylum seekers, a group of religious and regional bodies said Friday.

The statement, from the Pacific Conference of Churches, the World Council of Churches and other regional social and religious organizations, accused Australia of taking part in human trafficking and refusing to comply with a United Nations convention on refugees.

"We are also concerned that accepting the Australian aid deals will make Pacific Island governments part of the process that solicits money or profits out of trade in human trafficking, and in this case the asylum seekers," the statement said.

"We collectively reiterate our stand in safeguarding Pacific Islands dignity and refuse to see the Pacific region continuously becoming a dumping ground for the benefit of industrialized nations."

The joint statement said Australia was neglecting a U.N. 1951 Geneva Convention which it had signed and ratified "to provide asylum to refugees, irrespective of their mode of arrival".

The statement comes after Fiji admitted it was approached by Australia to accept up to 1,000 asylum seekers for processing.

Fijian Foreign Minister Kaliopate Tavola told the Fiji Times that it was considering the proposal but Australia would be expected to fund the establishment and maintenance of the processing facilities.

Tough stance

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Increasing numbers of asylum seekers, mainly from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, have been attempting to reach Australia in recent months.

Australia has recently adopted a tough stance, refusing to allow asylum seekers to land on its shores to process their refugee applications. Instead, it has moved many on to New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific nation of Nauru.

It has also approached Kiribati, another Pacific Ocean nation.

The Australian government fears the flood of boat people will increase should it process and accept those that attempt the journey now.

Outlining Canberra's proposal, the Australian high commissioner to Fiji Susan Boyd told Tavola that Australia wanted Fiji to accept 700 to 1,000 asylum seekers.

But that number could increase depending on how many more boat people were intercepted in the Indian Ocean.

Tavola said the asylum seekers would not be allowed to resettle in Fiji and that genuine applicants would be sent to Australia or New Zealand. Others would be sent back to their home country.

A task force committee will meet next week to look into the proposal.

If the Fijian cabinet approves the proposal, it is possible a processing facility may be set up at Mokogia, an island next the Wakaya which is home to one of the world's most exclusive resorts.

Political issue

Dealing with asylum seekers has become a fierce political issue in Australia ahead of a November 10 federal election.

The issue escalated in August when the government refused to allow a Norwegian freighter that picked up hundreds of asylum seekers from landing at Australia's Christmas Island.

After a standoff lasting several days, the asylum seekers were eventually transported by the Australian Navy to New Zealand and Nauru.

In the past week, 374 asylum seekers drowned after the vessel they boarded in Indonesia sank en route to Australia.

Indonesia said it will investigate allegations that corrupt police officers were part of a people smuggling ring that forced the asylum seekers onto the 20 meter vessel.

On Friday, there were reports that two Indonesian police were detained in relation to the allegations.

In the face of mounting international pressure over the incident, Indonesian Foreign Minister Hasan Wirayuda also announced plans for an international conference on ways to curb illegal migration, tentatively set for next month.

Stance criticized

Australia's stance of dealing with asylum seekers has been criticized by the United Nations refugee agency which said intercepting boat people was not enough.

UNHCR spokesperson in Australia Ellen Hansen told CNN that 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, she said.


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