Australia has offered asylum seekers at immigration camps in Southeast Asia up to AU$10,000 (US$9,400) if they drop their applications for refugee status and return home, a local newspaper reported.
The report by The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday prompted outrage from refugee campaigners who said asylum seekers could face persecution in their home countries.
The newspaper said those returning to Lebanon from detention centres on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and the tiny Pacific state of Nauru were offered the highest amount of AU$10,000.
Iranians and Sudanese were given AU$7,000 if they dropped bids for refugee status, Afghans $4,000 and those from Pakistan, Nepal and Myanmar AU$3,300, the report said.
The Herald said under the previous Labor administration, in office until last September, the payments were much lower, ranging from AU$1,500 to AU$2,000.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has not confirmed the figures, but a spokesman said the “return packages” were “tailored to the circumstances of each case”.
The process of voluntary return has been standard policy for more than 10 years, the spokesman said.
The opposition Labor party warned the government against issuing “blank cheques” to asylum seekers.
The move has also been criticised by campaigners for refugee rights and the Australian Green party, whose leader Christine Milne called the payments “bribes”, the AFP news agency reported.
Australia has toughened its policy on asylum-seekers in recent years, with those arriving on unauthorised boats now refused residency in Australia even if they are deemed refugees.
Instead they are held in detention camps on Manus and Nauru and are expected to be resettled in those countries if their claims are valid.
Since the policy was introduced, more asylum-seekers have chosen to voluntarily return to their country of origin while the number of people attempting to reach Australia by boat has dried up, with no boats arriving for six months.
The Australian government said 283 people had voluntarily returned home from offshore processing centres since shortly after conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott won power in September.