Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen announced on Monday that the government planned to send the first batch of asylum-seekers to an offshore processing center in the remote Pacific island state of Nauru in accordance with an agreement reached with the government there.
"The governments of Australia and Nauru have been working towards a transfer to occur in the latter part of this week," Bowen told a media conference in Canberra, adding that he had "signed the legislative instrument designating the Republic of Nauru as a regional processing country."
Stating that the document authorizing the transfer of asylum-seekers to Nauru will be tabled in the Parliament later on Monday for approval, Bowen added: "After the parliamentary approval process is completed, I'll then be making further announcements about logistical arrangements."
Bowen, however, did not specify the number of asylum-seekers to be transferred to the Nauru center later this week. Nevertheless, he stressed that any asylum-seeker who arrived in Australia after August 13 "runs the risk" of being sent there.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard had reached a deal with Papua New Guinea's government over the weekend to re-open an offshore processing center on Manus Island. She said the move was to ensure that asylum seekers who make the dangerous boat journeys to reach Australia get "no advantage" over those who apply through proper channels.
"Even if you are a genuine refugee, you would not get a resettlement opportunity earlier than you would have got it if you hadn't moved by boat. The aim here is so people don't get an advantage if they get on a boat, pay a people-smuggler and risk their lives at sea," Gillard was quoted as saying by ABC news.
The move follows recommendations made last month by an independent panel of experts commissioned by the government to propose ways to tackle the steadily increasing influx of asylum-seekers into the country. As the panel suggested, Australian lawmakers recently approved a legislation that allowed re-opening of the offshore centers set up in Nauru and Papua New Guinea for processing asylum claims.
The government also raised Australia's annual humanitarian intake to 20,000 from the current 13,759 as recommended by the panel. Other recommendations included not allowing asylum seekers who arrive by boat to sponsor family members to come to Australia, enhancing cooperation with Indonesia on surveillance as well as search and rescue operations, reviewing laws as well as the process of determining refugee status.
Gillard now appears to have abandoned a refugee swap deal her government had reached with Malaysia in favor of reopening the processing centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea as demanded by the Opposition. The Malaysia deal would have allowed Australia to send 800 asylum-seekers to that country in exchange for accepting 4,000 confirmed refugees from there over the next four years.
The Opposition Liberal Party remains firmly opposed to deporting asylum seekers to Malaysia, as the South-East Asian nation is not a signatory to the U.N. convention to protect refugees. The Liberal party wanted Australia to return to the controversial policy of former Premier John Howard, which allowed sending people arriving on Australian shores illegally by boats to Nauru.
That policy was scrapped when the Labor Party came to power. In June, the Opposition had voted down a bill, which included both the Nauru and Malaysia options, with the support of the Greens party, a member of the ruling coalition.
Australia has become a coveted destination for desperate people from impoverished and war-torn countries seeking a new life. Many of them attempt to enter the country by making a perilous 230-mile voyage from Indonesia in rickety fishing boats, which are often operated by human-traffickers. Scores of them perish every year in accidents at sea while attempting the journey.
The debate on detention and treatment of asylum seekers, along with their proposed deportation to another country for processing, had gained momentum in Australia after more than 150 asylum seekers were killed in separate boat accidents in less than a week in June.
The accidents occurred off Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean which is actually closer to Indonesia than Australia. Canberra has an immigration detention center on the island where all asylum-seekers arriving by boat are taken. Currently, more than 2,500 people are waiting at the island's processing center for officials to rule on their cases.
by RTT Staff Writer
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