Australia finds some asylum seekers to be refugees

The applications are the first to be determined since last July; plan is for refugees to settle in Papua New Guinea

Australian authorities have ruled that some of the hundreds of asylum seekers held for months in a detention camp on Papua New Guinea are genuine refugees, a minister said on Friday.

The asylum applications are the first to be determined since a previous Australian government announced last July that all refugees who attempt to reach Australia by boat will be resettled on Papua New Guinea, Australia's impoverished South Pacific island neighbor.

But a refugee advocate warns that the successful claims will do nothing to ease tensions among asylum seekers in an Australia-funded camp in Papua New Guinea where protests turned violent in February.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said Friday that the first decisions on 1,200 asylum seekers held on Papua New Guinea's remote Manus Island had been made this week. He did not say how many refugee applications had been determined.

He said an Australia-funded plan to resettle the genuine refugees in Papua New Guinea would go to that country's Cabinet ministers for approval next week, paving the way for refugees to leave the detention camp and make new homes.

Policies to stop the boats were a major issue in September elections, which brought conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott to power.

Ian Rintoul, spokesman for the Australian advocacy group Refugee Action Coalition, said he knew of only two successful refugee decisions on Manus Island — an Iranian man and a Pakistani man. No announcement was made inside the camp of any rejections, he said.

Neither of bona fide refugees felt that the uncertainty over his future had been resolved, Rintoul said.

"They don't think it's possible for them to be safely resettled in Papua New Guinea," Rintoul said. "It's a determination that has no substance for them."

Papua New Guinea is a diverse tribal society of more than 800 languages and 7 million people who are mostly subsistence farmers.

"Papua New Guinea is not equipped and cannot and will not provide secure resettlement for people," Rintoul said.

Frustration and uncertainty among asylum seekers on Manus Island who want to go to Australia led to a series of protests in January and February that culminated in a violent crackdown by guards, police and Manus Island locals which left an Iranian man dead and scores of detainees injured.

Amnesty International has described conditions at Manus Island as “excessively cruel and prison-like,” and the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) last reported that the Pacific island camps failed to meet international standards of treatment.

The threat of resettlement on and a recent Australian policy of turning asylum seeker vessels back to Indonesia have meant that not a single asylum seeker has reached Australia by boat this year.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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