April 7, 2006

Australia reviews visa system

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia will review how it grants
visas to asylum seekers, Prime Minister John Howard said on
Friday, after Indonesia complained it was not consulted over
Canberra's decision to give 42 Papuans protection visas.

Australia's Immigration Department recognized the 42 boat
people from Indonesia's troubled Papua province as refugees
last month after they sailed from their homeland in a
traditional outrigger with a banner accusing Indonesia of

Jakarta denies such charges and believes Canberra should
have asked for verification of the asylum seekers' claims. It
sees Australia's acceptance of the Papuans as giving credence
to their claims of ill-treatment and as support for Papuan

"Whatever comes out of that review you can be certain that
we'll continue to meet our international obligations, but we'll
also pay proper regard to the importance of the relationship
between Australia and Indonesia," Howard told reporters.

Howard has been adamant that Australia views Papua as part
of Indonesia.

"We're dealing here with the future of the largest Islamic
country in the world and a moderate Islamic leadership," he

"One of the greatest anti-terrorist blows that can be
struck is a successful, progressive, democratic Indonesia ...
The best path forward for West Papua is to be part of a more
prosperous, more democratic Indonesia."

The visa offer for the asylum seekers, who landed on
Australia's remote northeastern tip in late January, has
strained relations between the neighbors. There have been
protests outside the Australian embassy in Jakarta and calls
for a boycott of Australian products.

Papuan independence activists have campaigned for more than
30 years to split from Indonesia, while a low-level rebellion
has also simmered. Some of the most prominent support for the
separatists is from organizations in Australia.

A Papua-based priest said on Wednesday that a family of six
seeking asylum had reached an Australian island in the Torres
Strait, but a search by Australian Customs failed to find them.

However, any Papuans seeking refuge in Australia would need
to reach the country's mainland as Canberra has excised
thousands of islands in its northern waters from its migration
zone, which prevents any claims for asylum being made.

Australian minority Greens party leader Bob Brown said the
government would breach international law if it consulted with
Indonesia on claims made by asylum seekers.

"West Papuans seeking refuge in Australia have a legal
right to anonymity. The specter of terrorism is now being used
by Prime Minister Howard to deprive West Papuans of their
rights," Brown said in a statement.