SYDNEY Nauru, the tiny Pacific island that hosts a controversial Australian immigration detention centre, is hiking visa costs for foreign journalists by 40 times, fuelling concerns over secrecy surrounding Australia's asylum seeker policy.
The steady flow of refugee boats is a hot political issue in Australia, polarising voters while stoking tension with neighbours such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka over border security policies criticised by the United Nations.
Nauru's decision to increase the cost of applying for a one-visit visa from A$200 ($180) to A$8,000 makes the rate one of the most expensive in the world.
"I understand the fee is for revenue purposes," government spokeswoman Joanna Olsson said in an email.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's conservative Liberal-led coalition is under fire for what critics call secrecy regarding its policies to deter asylum seekers making the perilous boat journey.
The government has refused to confirm reports that Australia last month turned a boat carrying asylum-seekers back to Indonesia, in line with its policy of not commenting on "operational matters".
A report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) quoted boat passengers as saying they received only one meal a day during the five-day ordeal and Australian authorities used restraints and physical force against some passengers.
Opposition Labor Party lawmaker Anthony Albanese accused the government of running a "North Korean" style blackout over the issue.
Abbott defended the secrecy, telling Macquarie Radio on Thursday, "The point is not to provide sport for public discussion, the point is to stop the boats."
Rights Group Amnesty International has criticised conditions at the detention centres on Nauru and Manus island in Papua New Guinea, where access to adequate medical facilities and housing have been a major concern.
The majority of those held in Nauru and on Manus have fled from war-torn areas, including Afghanistan, Darfur, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria.
"I don't see the logic of annoying the media," said James Jupp, an adjunct associate professor at the Australian National University in Canberra, adding that Abbott could be telling the public he was fulfilling his election promise of stopping the boats, but was refusing to do so. ($1=1.1198 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Matt Siegel,; Editing by Jane Wardell and Clarence Fernandez)