Tuvalu News

New Zealand Herald

Red Faces Over N.Z. Rebuff of Tuvalu Leader

23.02.2000 - By VERNON SMALLForeign Affairs officials yesterday scrambled to arrange talks between Prime Minister Helen Clark and Tuvalu's leader after he had earlier been rebuffed.

Prime Minister Ionatana Ionatana said he had sought a meeting two weeks ago, but Helen Clark said there had been "a communications issue."

She understood he was on a private visit to Auckland and no meeting could be arranged last weekend.

Sources in her office said Foreign Affairs officials had faced hard questions over the gaffe.

Pacific Island voters are a key constituency for Labour.

Mr Ionatana is seeking homes for the 10,000 people crowded onto the small low-lying Pacific atoll, that are facing the threat of rising sea levels.

After 30 minutes of talks between the two, Helen Clark said Tuvalu hoped New Zealand would take permanent migrants to relieve the atoll's population pressure.

She said Mr Ionatana had indicated the population would be better reduced from 10,000 to between 6000 and 7000.

"That is an issue we will all need to talk about. It is also a question of whether this is only New Zealand's responsibility to respond," she said.

Mr Ionatana said he was "quite satisfied with the talks."

He said nobody knew for sure when rising sea levels would make Tuvalu uninhabitable, and the time to act on the threat was now.

Helen Clark said Labour's election policy had talked of a Pacific access quota.

"Clearly the population pressures on Tuvalu would make it a country we would wish to talk to about that."

Some 5000 Tuvaluans are in New Zealand, some as residents and others on work permits. The Prime Ministers discussed overstayers on an existing work scheme which allows 80 Tuvaluans to work here.

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