CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia revived its controversial ‘Pacific Solution’ refugee policy on Friday, sending the first group of asylum seekers to immigration detention in a makeshift tent city on the remote tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru.
The 30 Sri Lankan asylum seekers will be the first to have refugee claims processed offshore under a tough new policy designed to deter refugee boats and people smuggling from neighboring Indonesia.
“The message is very clear. If you arrive in Australia by boat, you can be taken from Australia by aeroplane and be processed in another country,” Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said after the group landed in Nauru.
Australia is also working with Papua New Guinea to reopen an immigration detention centre on its isolated Manus Island, reviving a policy which the ruling Labor government abandoned when it took power in 2007.
When fully operating, the Nauru detention centre will house around 1,500 asylum seekers, including women, children and family groups, while around 600 will be sent to Manus Island.
By being processed offshore, asylum seekers granted refugee status are not guaranteed to be resettled in Australia. Instead, they join the queue to find a country for resettlement, removing the incentive to try to make it to Australia.
Australia’s Human Rights Commission said it had serious concerns that asylum seeker rights might not be properly protected in Nauru.
Refugee policy is a hot-button political issue in Australia, even though the country receives only a small number of the world’s asylum seekers each year. The U.N refugee agency said Australia received 11,800 asylum claims in 2011, compared with 441,000 globally.
But Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and her Labor predecessor Kevin Rudd, have been subjected to sustained political attack for being soft on border protection as more refugee boats reach Australian territory.
Gillard last month agreed to opposition calls to reopen offshore detention centers after a series of tragedies involving refugee boats sinking on their way from Indonesia to Australia’s Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.
Her preferred plan, to set up a refugee swap with Malaysia, was knocked down by Australia’s High Court in August 2011.
Bowen said more asylum seekers would be transferred to Nauru from Christmas Island over the coming week, while the temporary tent accommodation would eventually be replaced by permanent buildings.
The Australian Greens and human rights groups have condemned the Nauru and PNG detention centers, warning they will increase the stress and led to potential mental health problems for people who face prolonged detention.
“There is no information as to how prepared Nauru is to process the claims and it is unclear whether those transferred to Nauru will have access to legal advice,” Australia’s Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs said.
More than 2,200 asylum seekers have arrived in Australian waters by boat since Gillard announced the new Pacific Solution in mid August.
An independent report into asylum policy last month found around 1,000 people have died making the voyage from Indonesia to Christmas Island since 2001, with the latest tragedy in Indonesia’s Sunda Strait on August 30.
In December 2011, as many as 200 people died when an overcrowded boat sank off the coast of East Java. In 2010, 50 asylum seekers died when their boat was thrown onto rocks at Christmas Island. In 2001, a boat known as the SIEV X sank on its way to Australia with the loss of 350 lives.
Reporting by James Grubel