Work to start on Nauru asylum centre

PAUL OSBORNE
Last updated 13:51 14/08/2012
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard
Reuters
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

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Australian troops and officials could start work on reopening the Nauru asylum seeker processing centre as early as Friday.

Ahead of the government introducing legislation to parliament today, Prime Minister Julia Gillard met with defence force chief General David Hurley in Canberra to discuss logistics.

General Hurley said a reconnaissance team with officials from immigration and other departments could be on the ground in Nauru on Friday morning.

"That's fantastic," Ms Gillard said in response.

Ms Gillard earlier spoke with the president of Nauru, Sprent Dabwido, formally requesting his support.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare says Nauru could be reopened in a matter of "weeks not months" if parliament passes the necessary laws this week.

Papua New Guinea's Manus Island centre would be up and running "as soon as possible", he said.

"First and foremost we need to come to an agreement with both of those nations to establish facilities," Mr Clare told reporters.

"The sooner we get the legislation through the parliament, the sooner we can establish a facility at Nauru and Manus (Island) and the sooner we can stop people risking their lives."

The reopening of the two centres with strong human rights protections and oversight by Australian officials was a key recommendation of an expert panel led by former defence chief Angus Houston.

The federal opposition is almost certain to vote with the government and pass the laws as early as this week.

But Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said the government also needed to embrace temporary protection visas and allow the navy to turn back boats when it is safe to do so.

"It's terrific that the government is now going to move quickly to reopen Nauru," Mr Abbott said.

"But on its own it won't be enough to stop the boats."

Mr Abbott also queried the call by the expert panel for Australia's annual humanitarian intake to be increased from 13,750 to 20,000, and to 27,000 within five years.

"It will be very expensive," he said.

The Australian Greens, while opposing the legislation, are standing by their support for the Gillard minority government.

"But this will be one of those rare incidents where we are not prepared to go back to the John Howard approach to dealing with refugees," Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt told ABC radio.

Mr Houston said processing centres in Nauru and on Manus Island in PNG would operate under better conditions than they did prior to their closure by Labor in 2008.

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Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said parts of the new approach would be tougher than the Howard government's Pacific solution.

Labor Left co-convenor Senator Doug Cameron vowed to ensure offshore centres that process asylum seekers are not run as "prison camps".

Another opponent of offshore processing, Independent senator Nick Xenophon, said it was time for all MPs to eat some "humble pie" and solve the problem of people drowning at sea.

Meanwhile, the government has confirmed 67 asylum seekers may have drowned trying to reach Australia after leaving Indonesia in late June.

The boat is the latest in a string of vessels to attempt the dangerous crossing to Australia's northwest and news that it was missing came as Australia's parliament considers new laws to deter boats carrying asylum seekers arriving illegally.

The boat left Indonesia in late June or early July but has not been detected since, Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare told Australian television.

"There is no evidence that those people have arrived in Australia," Clare said, adding Australia held "very great fears" for those missing.

Since 2001, almost 1000 people have died at sea while attempting to reach Australia on overcrowded and often unseaworthy refugee boats from Indonesia.

While illegal boat arrivals are a hot political topic, the numbers trying to reach Australia are small compared with the more than 58,000 people who arrived in Europe by sea in 2011, according to UN figures.

- AAP, Reuters

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