The Guardian November 21, 2001


Tuvalu's sinking feeling "ignored"

Just four months after Australia refused to take in migrants from 
Tuvalu, Canberra is trying to pressure the tiny Pacific nation to shelter 
Middle East asylum seekers, a government official confirmed last week.

Tuvalu, one of the world's smallest nations which fears it is sinking 
beneath a rising Pacific Ocean has 11,000 people on just 26sq km of land 
spread over nine atolls.

That equates to 403 people per square kilometre. Australia, now shifting 
hundreds of boat people around the Pacific, has 2.4 people per square 
kilometre.

Amid fears over global warming Tuvalu earlier this year asked New Zealand 
and Australia to take in more of its nationals. Wellington said yes.

But in July, Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said no.

"It is not, at the moment, an issue in which the population of those 
countries are at risk. They have to meet the normal migration criteria that 
apply to anybody in the world, who wants to come to Australia", he 
said.Tuvalu Secretary to Government Panapa Nelesone said that they had 
received a verbal request from Canberra to take asylum seekers.

"We have been asked but we have not received an official approach in 
writing", he said from the capital, Funafuti.

"When we receive it we will look at it and respond to it we don't have much 
space, we need space."

Asked if it was odd to get the request so soon after Australia's refusal to 
take Tuvaluans, he replied "exactly".

"We ask them for space and now they're sending us their own people", Mr 
Nelesone said.

At no point is Funafuti, or any of its other atolls, more than 4.5m above 
mean sea level.

Canberra officials made the approach to Tuvalu through their Health 
Minister Amasone Kilei.

Australian photographer Peter Bennetts, whose book "Time and Tide" on 
Tuvalu was launched in Melbourne last week, revealed the request.

"This is abhorrent", he said, referring to the crisis which began in August 
when Australia refused to allow asylum seekers picked up by the ship 
"Tampa" into the country.

Canberra moved the initial refugees to the island of Nauru and some to New 
Zealand. Papua New Guinea is also taking asylum seekers, while Palau and 
Fiji are considering requests to provide a refuge to the boat people.

Mr Bennetts said it was ironic that Australia had rejected the Tuvaluans' 
request for help for when atoll life becomes untenable.

"Shamefully Australians are the highest per capita producers of greenhouse 
gases", he said.

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