Stop sending refugees to Pacific, says Senate

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 August, 2003, 12:00am

Australia's Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, has rejected a Senate report recommending that the practice of sending unwanted asylum-seekers to Pacific countries should be scrapped.

Under the so-called 'Pacific solution' initiated two years ago, Australia persuaded Papua New Guinea and the tiny island nation of Nauru to house hundreds of refugees in specially built camps.

The arrangement has been criticised by human rights groups, which accuse the government of dumping the refugee problem on to poor states desperate for Australian aid.

Papua New Guinea has been crippled by corruption and financial mismanagement, while Nauru is effectively bankrupt.

A report by the Senate committee on foreign affairs this week said the policy of processing asylum-seekers offshore should end.

'The Pacific strategy is considered to feed the perception within the region that Australia's domestic political considerations are more important than broader regional issues,' the report said.

But Mr Ruddock said: 'It's worked exceedingly well ... in the sense that we had very large numbers of unauthorised border arrivals [before the policy was adopted],' he said.

'We have seen, except for the Vietnamese vessel that came in July, no unauthorised arrivals for something like 18 months.'

Australia started sending refugees to Pacific nations in 2001 following a tense standoff with a Norwegian freighter that rescued about 350 asylum-seekers trying to reach Australia by sea. Since then, the number of refugees in offshore detention centres has dropped from a peak of 1,500 to less than 400.

Australia's role in the Pacific suffered a further blow yesterday in a deadlock over who should be the next leader of the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum, which is holding its annual summit in Auckland.

Canberra has lobbied hard for a former Australian diplomat, Greg Urwin, to be named its next secretary-general. But at least six smaller states oppose the move, fearful of giving Australia - often perceived as the region's Big Brother - any more influence. A decision has been deferred until this weekend.