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Australia on a mission to Nauru



By CNN's Grant Holloway

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer is in Nauru on a mission to persuade the tiny Pacific nation to help detain more asylum seekers diverted from Australian shores.

The visit comes amid reports that nearly 70 Sri Lankan asylum seekers have arrived at the Australian territory of Cocos Islands, more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) north-west of the Australian mainland.

Downer will visit the two Australian built and run detention centers on Nauru and meet representatives of the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

There are around 700 asylum seekers detained in two camps on Nauru and several hundred more have been sent to a remote island camp in Papua New Guinea.

Since August Australia has adopted a controversial zero-tolerance policy on asylum seekers, not allowing them to set foot on Australian territory or be processed in the country's six overcrowded and trouble-prone detention centers.

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Instead, the boat people have either been turned back to sea by Australian navy and customs boats or transported to camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

The group of Sri Lankan men found aboard their boat moored to the south of the Cocos Islands on Sunday were the first such arrivals this month, however the encroaching monsoon weather always slows down the numbers at this time of year.

Cocos Islands shire president Ron Grant told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Monday investigations were underway as to the whereabouts of the crew, after the asylum seekers told authorities they had left in another boat after dropping them off.

The Sri Lankans have, so far, not been allowed onshore.

The so-called Pacific Solution policy on boat people, the government admits, will be difficult to maintain if boat people arrivals continue apace, hence Downer's visit to Nauru.

The tiny nation measures just 21 square kilometers (eight square miles) and has a population of around 12,000.

The country, the world's smallest independent nation, formerly relied upon phosphate mining for its income but those reserves are now almost exhausted.

It has sought to fill the gap by becoming a domicile for banking operations, but has now been sanctioned by the OECD for not doing enough to crack down on suspected money laundering through the island's 400 registered banks.

Australia has offered cash and aid to Nauru in return for taking the asylum seekers.

Downer will also visit Fiji and Vanuatu during this week's Pacific trip.

"Vanuatu and Fiji are both important neighbors for Australia in Melanesia, with whom we have close connections and important interests," Downer said in a statement Monday.



 
 
 
 



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