Australia prepares to send first refugees to Nauru

14 September 2012


The Australian government is expected to fly the first planeload of asylum seekers to the Pacific Island of Nauru within 24 hours but there is growing controversy regarding the rights that those transported will enjoy while there.

Two days ago, Nauru's foreign minister Kieren Keke told Australian broadcaster ABC that it was his understanding that the internees would be given access to legal advice and support and that, initially, they would be held under Australian jurisdiction.

However, Rick Towle, the regional head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, has said that the Australian government had told the UNHCR that it would bear no responsibility for asylum seekers once they had left to be processed offshore. 'We understand that it is the Australian position that all responsibility under international law passes to Nauru. If that is the case, then there are many questions about the competency of Nauru to meet its Convention responsibilities'. Mr Towle added 'We think it is more sensible that it be seen as a shared responsibility under international law.'

If the asylum seekers were to be held under Australian jurisdiction, then it would give rise to the possibility of challenges to deportation decisions being held in the Australian courts. A spokesman for Australian immigration minister Chris Bowen said on 12th September 2012, that 'there are still some things to be finalised. We'll have more to say very soon.'

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said that holding the refugees under Australian jurisdiction would 'completely cut the legs off' the policy of holding asylum seekers on Nauru because it would mean that they would have recourse to the Australian courts to appeal any decision to deport them.

The last time that Australia held refugees on Nauru in 2007 under the previous Howard government, there was a two tier process for decisions on whether to grant asylum to those held on Nauru. An immigration officer would make an initial decision and any appeals would be heard by a senior immigration officer. It is believed that the new system will rely on independent reviewers hearing appeals for applicants whose initial applications have been refused.

To facilitate the transfer of asylum seekers to Nauru the Australian government has chartered a long haul Airbus A319 jet; this jet can fly over 5,000 miles on a single load of fuel which is more than adequate to cover the distance from anywhere in Australia to Nauru (Darwin to Nauru is around 2,600 miles). The Australian newspaper has reported that the first planeload will take 40 asylum seekers and 40 immigration staff from the Australian island of Christmas Island, where many asylum seekers are currently held, via Darwin to Nauru late on the afternoon of 14th September 2012.

Mr Bowen told a press conference on Tuesday 12th September that the first arrivals will have to live in tents when they arrive on Nauru because living quarters are not yet ready for habitation.

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