August 14, 2012 11:41 am

Australia debates offshore asylum centres

Australia could start processing asylum seekers at two offshore regional centres within a month if parliament backs proposed changes to the country’s migration act.

Prime minister Julia Gillard said it would be possible to have teams on Nauru, a tiny island republic in the South Pacific, and Manus Island, off Papua New Guinea, looking at sites by the end of the week.

“Subject to what those reconnaissance teams find, it would be possible for the Defence Force to facilitate the construction of temporary facilities in both locations,” Ms Gillard said. “That means within a month, we would hope to see people being processed in Nauru and PNG.”

Ms Gillard used the release of a report on Monday by an expert panel on asylum seekers to effectively abandon her Malaysian people-swap plan and break the political deadlock over Australia’s border protection laws.

There was an attempt to break the stalemate in June after a boat carrying 200 people sank off Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean but it was defeated in the upper house of the Australian parliament by the opposition Liberal coalition and Australian Greens.

A sharp increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia this year, largely from Afghanistan, saw 1,800 people arrive in July. Customs officials are investigating reports that a boat carrying 67 has gone missing after leaving Indonesia.

The report by former defence chief Angus Houston made 22 recommendations, including the reopening of offshore processing centres on Nauru and PNG, an immediate increase in Australia’s annual humanitarian refugee intake from 13,750 to 20,000 and the introduction of a “no advantage” principle. This means people who arrive in Australia by boat will have to wait as long for their claims to be processed as any other asylum seeker would.

The Labor party immediately accepted the report’s recommendations and the opposition Liberal National coalition said on Tuesday it would back the proposals, which were still being debated in Canberra and mark a return to the so-called Pacific Solution.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott said: “The prime minister has finally, finally, finally seen the sense of what the Opposition has been proposing all along. But let us not quibble over four years . . . and almost 1,000 deaths.”

When Labor took power in 2007 it promised to end the offshore processing of refugees on centres at Nauru and Manus Island. The policy had been introduced by the previous government of John Howard.

Plans to reopen the centres have drawn criticism from Amnesty International, which said on Tuesday it was “very concerned” with the “punitive measures”, such as offshore processing, to which the panel’s report had given priority.

The report was also attacked by former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser who told state broadcaster ABC: “The panel I believe has tried to give the parliament something which the major parties could accept. The result is going to be racist because if people had been white farmers fleeing from Zimbabwe we would have had a totally different policy.”

Although Australia remains a minor destination country for asylum seekers – it received 2.5 per cent of global asylum claims in 2011 according to the Houston Report – there has been a sharp increase in irregular maritime arrivals. More than 18,000 IMAs have arrived since Labor closed the Nauru centre in October 2008. The only time that has been matched was more than a decade ago when 12,176 people arrived.

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