Australia looks to Papua for asylum deal

May 6, 2011 at 2:16 PM
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CANBERRA, Australia, May 6 (UPI) -- Australia is looking to reopen an asylum processing center on a remote island in Papua New Guinea, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation said.

The center on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island was closed in 2008. Human rights groups criticized the Canberra government, saying that by having an asylum seeker detention center on the island Australia was abdicating its international obligations to protect asylum seekers.

The center was built in 2001 as part of Australia's Pacific Solution policy. The last inmate, who was kept as a lone inmate from July 2003, was granted asylum in Australia in June 2004.

Manus Island, 60 miles by 19 miles and with a population of around 33,000, is the fifth largest island in Papua New Guinea. It is noted for dense tropical rainforest jungles and mountains -- the highest peak at around 2,500 feet.

The influx of thousands of asylum seekers to Australia -- in particular boat people -- in the past several years is filling detention centers on the mainland and also the main center on Australia's Christmas Island. The government needs to build detention centers.

While the government of Papua New Guinea confirmed Australia is talking to them about reopening Manus or using another location for a center, Australia's prime minister refused to confirm discussions are under way.

The secretary of Papua New Guinea's Foreign Ministry, Michael Maue, confirmed discussions with Australia, a report in The Australian newspaper said.

"At the moment, the matter is still under consideration, at least from our side," Maue told The Australian.

"It is a matter that is with our political leaders now. It may be Manus, it may be elsewhere."

But Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said only that discussions are under way with U.N. agencies to find a solution to Australia's burgeoning problem of boat people. Many pay notorious people smugglers in Asia thousands of dollars for passage in unseaworthy boats just to arrive in Australian waters and be rescued from sinking or near-sinking vessels.

"As prime minister when I first talked about the very complex problem of people smuggling I said I was committed to a regional solution and we have been pursuing discussions in our region and with the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees on a regional solution," Gillard told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"When I've got something to announce arising from those discussions then I'll announce it."

The controversial Pacific Solution was the name given to the Australian government policy, between 2001 and 2007, of transporting asylum seekers to detention camps on small island nations in the Pacific Ocean. A center was built on Manus Island in 2001.

Defenders of the Pacific Solution say it successfully reduced the numbers of illegal entrants arriving in Australian waters by boat. Arrivals dropped from 5,516 in 2001 to one in 2002 after implementation of the policy, government figures show.

However, there were problems. Riots and a malaria outbreak in the center's early days of operation and in 2002 more than 40 asylum seekers tried to escape by swimming out to sea.

But critics said the current discussions with Papua New Guinea represent a volte face for Gillard and her Labor Party. Her predecessor, Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, dumped the policy after winning a national election in 2008 and closed the Manus center.

Australia's Department of Immigration said irregular maritime arrivals in 2010 included 134 boats carrying 6,535 people. This year, 16 boats carrying around 920 people have been intercepted by the Australian coast guard and navy.

The detention center on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean has around 1,750 of the illegal immigrants and 4,552 are in centers on the mainland.

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