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Australia keen to send Afghans home

By Grant Holloway

CANBERRA, Australia (CNN) -- Ignoring a United Nations recommendation on the issue, the Australian govenment is planning to suspend the processing of refugee applications from Afghan asylum seekers.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said Monday that with the Taliban no longer in power and a transitional government in place in Kabul, processing of refugee applications should be delayed while information was sought about the situation.

"One suspects that if people's claims were simply as they've been put -- a fear of the Taliban, a young man concerned about being conscripted -- if that's the nature of the fear, then that fear is no longer well founded and the claim for refugee status wouldn't arise," Ruddock told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has said, however, that the obstacles for Afghan refugees returning to their homeland "should not be underestimated".

Citing the enormous destruction of homes and infrastructure throughout the country and the scourge of millions of landmines, U.N. High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers says the international community needs to ensure that the "necessary conditions are created to allow these refugees to return."

UNHCR says it is currently preparing a repatriation plan for refugees which is expected to be put in place over a number of years. Asia
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Ruddock said Monday the United Nations would soon be making arrangements for people to return home.

About 2,000 Afghan asylum seekers held in Australian detention could eventually be repatriated.

Australia detains all asylum seekers arriving on its shores until their applications for refugee status are processed, or if unsuccessful, until they can be sent back to their home country.

This process can take years, and in the case of asylum seekers from countries where there is no diplomatic representation -- such as Iraq or Afghanistan -- detention in Australia's remote desert camps can be indefinite.

Since mid August, Australia has also adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards illegal immigrants, turning back boatpeople or sending them on to detention camps in Nauru or Papua New Guinea.

Last week an Indonesian vessel carrying about 160 people suspected of attempting to illegally enter Australia was turned back by an Australian Navy vessel.

The vessel had been intercepted north of the Ashmore Islands, a remote territory off Australia's north west coastline.

Australian Defence Force personnel boarded the vessel and prevented it proceeding further, the Department of Immigration said in a statement.

This is the fourth vessel that the Royal Australian Navy has escorted back towards Indonesia in recent months.


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