Plans to transfer asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat to Pacific states won crucial support yesterday, with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard saying they could be processed offshore within a month.
Canberra has struggled to stem an influx of boatpeople who make the dangerous sea voyage to Australia and on Monday said it would move to handle their refugee claims on Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
“Within a month, we would hope to see people processed on Nauru and Papua New Guinea,” Gillard said, adding that she had spoken to the leaders of both nations and they responded positively to the idea.
The government hopes that offshore processing will deter asylum-seekers from paying people-smugglers to take them to Australia, knowing they could spend years waiting on a Pacific island before moving back to the country.
Parliament was yesterday debating amended laws aimed at reinstating the offshore processing — a practice abandoned by the Labor party when it won power in 2007.
It follows an independent report by former Australian defence force chief Angus Houston released on Monday which recommended reopening the shuttered camps used under the so-called “Pacific Solution” of former Australian prime minister John Howard.
Under the controversial scheme, boatpeople were processed on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island or tiny Nauru in Australian-funded detention centers, but many languished on the remote outposts for years.
Tony Abbott, who leads the conservative opposition which has long supported reopening Nauru as an offshore processing center, welcomed Gillard’s “last-minute conversion to common sense,” but said it came too late.
“I think this is a good move from the government, it could have come at any time in the last four years, it should have come much, much earlier than it has,” he told reporters. “While the prime minister’s stubbornness has been preventing real solutions from being put in place, we’ve had 22,000 boatpeople, we’ve had almost 400 boats and we’ve had terrible cost, terrible trauma, terrible tragedy.”
The number of boatpeople traveling to Australia this year has reached more than 7,500, an all-time high, and the government acknowledges that not all the boats successfully complete the journey, with hundreds drowning en route since 2001.
Australian Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said yesterday that another 67 asylum-seekers were likely to have died more recently.