Australia has expanded its plan to banish asylum-seekers arriving by boat to other countries as the national election looms.
Kevin Rudd, the prime minister, has signed an agreement with Baron Waqa, president of Nauru, to send people trying to reach Australia by unauthorised asylum boats to the remote Pacific island for processing and ultimate resettlement.
The tough new policy, which effectively closes Australia to refugees labelled by Australia as “boat people”, was unveiled two weeks ago and initially involved Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Rudd said that families and unaccompanied children would be the focus of transfers to Nauru under the deal, which will see the tiny Pacific atoll get a significant Australian aid boost, including the rebuilding of its prison.
“Nauru is a nation with a small population. We would only expect modest numbers to ever be involved in settlement,” Rudd said.
“It is clear that the only way to deal with the challenge of people smuggling is through a comprehensive regional approach.”
Australia hopes that the policy, known as the PNG Solution, will stem a record influx of refugee boat arrivals that has topped 15,000 so far this year.
However, it has been criticised by refugee advocates and human rights groups, while the UN has said that it is “troubled” by the policy.
Rudd said the addition of Nauru reflected the “full strength of the resolve” of his ruling Australian Labor Party on the sensitive political issue, with speculation mounting that he is poised to announce a September 7 national election and swing into campaign mode.
Rudd denied he had settled on a timetable for the national polls, due before November 30, and said that he had yet to determine a date.
Rudd put a potential dampener on the September 7 speculation by confirming for the first time that he planned to attend the September 5-6 G20 leaders’ summit in Russia, where Australia will assume the chair for 2014.
Riots erupted at the existing refugee processing centre on Nauru, an island with a population of just 9,400, following Rudd’s announcement last month that Australia would stop accepting any refugees arriving by boat without a visa.
Most of the major buildings were razed and more than 100 detainees have been charged over the incident, which has resulted in the erection of a tent city on the other side of the island as temporary refugee housing.
Waqa said Nauru was committed to stand by Australia in tackling what he described as a regional problem.
“I think the problem of asylum-seekers is not just Australia’s,” he said.
Waqa said that it had been discussed in so many forums that it was a regional solution for the Micronesian island as well.
The announcement came after a second group of asylum seekers arrived at Australia’s controversial detention centre in Papua New Guinea (PNG) late on Thursday, under the countries’ new refugee processing deal.
An Australian immigration department spokesman said that the latest transfer of asylum-seekers to Manus Island were a group of 39 Iranian men.
“[It] sends the clearest possible message that coming to Australia by boat is not the way to gain Australian residency,” he said.
“People found not to be refugees may be returned to their home country or a country where they had a right of residence, or held in a transit facility.”