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Nauru pushes higher fees for asylum seekers sent by Australia

October 26, 2012 | 12:04 pm

The tiny nation of Nauru is pushing Australia to pay roughly $1,000 monthly for every asylum seeker it sends to the Pacific island.

Australian immigration officials say the hike in visa fees is under discussion with Nauru but said it was “reasonable” for people transferred to the island to go under “a valid visa.” The costs would not be shouldered by the detained immigrants, an immigration spokesman added. Refugees who come to Nauru on their own pay a much lower fee of about $100, according to Australian media reports. 

The boosted fees could net Nauru more than $18 million annually if the island detention center is filled, a price tag that has alarmed Australian government critics on the right and the left. Yet sticker shock isn’t expected to derail its immigration plan, the hard-won result of a tortuous tug of war between the government and its opponents earlier this year.  

“If Nauru has asked for this, it’s reasonable to expect they’re going to get it,” said Sharon Pickering of the Border Crossing Observatory at Monash University. “It’s not like Australia has a Plan C going.”

Australia recently decided to send asylum seekers who show up on its shores to the Pacific islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea to wait while Australian authorities weigh their fates. The plan emerged as Australians fretted about rickety boats packed with desperate immigrants sometimes capsizing and claiming scores of lives.

Sending them offshore, the government argued, would deter immigrants from risking their lives on the perilous trip. The idea was promoted as a way to undercut smugglers and save lives at sea. So far, 381 people have been shipped to Nauru under the plan.

“We are determined to expose the people smugglers' business model for what is: a ruthless con. There is no visa awaiting boat arrivals, no speedy outcome and no special treatment,” Immigration Minister Chris Bowen announced this month before visiting the islands.

The political debate reframed sending immigrants to Nauru and Papua New Guinea -- the “Pacific Solution” scuttled years ago as inhumane -- as a moral way to stop trafficking. Leftist critics and human rights groups lament the new strategy as nothing but a return to that old, rejected plan, condemning immigrants to languish in isolated camps.

“It’s absolutely surreal” to see the same plan so dramatically recast, said Tania Penovic, deputy director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University. “The idea is to save these boat people from themselves. The reality is, there’s been no letup in boats.”

Hundreds of asylum seekers detained on Nauru went on a hunger strike for a single day Friday in protest, agitating for the camp to be shuttered, said Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition Sydney. The asylum seekers have been told they may have to wait months just to turn in an application, let alone get a decision, Rintoul said.

From the left, Green Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young argued Nauru was pushing fees to try to stop people being “dumped on their island indefinitely.” She insisted that the government explain whether the visa fees had been factored into the expected costs of the plan.

“We already knew that the longer these vulnerable people spend on Nauru, the more it will cost in many ways, but this is just another bill that the Australian taxpayer will have to pick up,” argued Hanson-Young, the Green Party spokeswoman for immigration issues. On the upside, she said, “charging people for the length of time they are held should act as an incentive for the Australian government to process refugee claims more quickly.”

Government critics on the right, however, contend the fees were a sign that Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her Labor Party had failed to negotiate effectively with Nauru.

“This government has been dragged kicking and screaming into this arrangement and their record of negotiations on these issues is pretty appalling.... I think they should push back on this,” opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison told Channel Nine in Australia.

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-- Emily Alpert in Tadanoumi, Japan

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