SYDNEY – Australia expanded its plan banishing asylum-seekers arriving by boat to Papua New Guinea Saturday to include the far-flung Pacific island of Nauru as national elections loom.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Nauruan President Baron Waqa signed a deal allowing unauthorised asylum boat arrivals to be sent to the remote island for processing and ultimate resettlement under a tough new policy effectively closing Australia to boatpeople.
The plan, unveiled two weeks ago, initially involved impoverished Papua New Guinea, but Rudd said Nauru had also decided to join the initiative.
Family groups and unaccompanied minors would be the focus of transfers to Nauru, Rudd said of the deal, which will see the tiny Pacific atoll get a significant Australian aid boost including the rebuilding of its prison.
“Nauru is a nation with a small population. We would only expect modest numbers to ever be involved in settlement,” said Rudd.
“It is clear that the only way to deal with the challenge of people smuggling is through a comprehensive regional approach.”
The so-called PNG solution, which Canberra hopes will stem a record influx of boat arrivals that has topped 15,000 so far this year, has been criticized by refugee advocates and human rights groups.
Rudd said the addition of Nauru reflected the “full strength of the resolve” of his ruling Labor party on the sensitive political issue, with speculation mounting that he is poised to announce a September 7 national election and swing into campaign mode.
Rudd denied he had settled on a timetable for the national polls, due before November 30, saying he’d made “no determination whatsoever in terms of a date”.
He put a potential dampener on the September 7 speculation, confirming for the first time that he was planning to attend the September 5-6 G20 leaders’ summit in Russia, where Australia will assume the chair for 2014.
“It’s my intention to be in St Petersburg, but I’m very mindful also of the other challenges which lie ahead of us as well,” Rudd said.
“I place enormous priority to the G20 and its agenda. At the same time I will always balance that against other considerations before us as well.”
Riots erupted at the existing refugee processing centre on Nauru — an island with a population of just 9,400 — following Rudd’s announcement last month that Australia would stop accepting any refugees arriving by boat without a visa.
Most of the major buildings were razed and more than 100 detainees have been charged over the incident, which has resulted in the erection of a tent city on the other side of the island as temporary refugee housing.
Waqa said Nauru was committed to “stand by” Australia in tackling what he described as a regional problem.
“I think the problem of asylum-seekers is not just Australia’s, (it’s been) discussed in so many forums that it is a regional solution for us as well,” he said.