Kevin Rudd signs a memorandum with President of the Republic of Nauru, Baron Waqa, regarding asylum seekers who will be processed and settled on the Pacific Island nation.
Kevin Rudd signs a memorandum with President of the Republic of Nauru, Baron Waqa, regarding asylum seekers who will be processed and settled on the Pacific Island nation. Photo: Michelle Smith
As Kevin Rudd kept the nation guessing on an election date, the federal government struck a deal with Nauru that will see the tiny Pacific island nation process and settle children and family groups who arrive by boat seeking asylum in Australia.
And Labor hinted there might be more asylum-seeker deals soon struck with other nations in the region.
In Canberra, VIP jets lined up to fly both party leaders and media packs around the nation in an election campaign expected to start on Sunday, but it seemed Mr Rudd, announcing the Nauru deal in Brisbane, wanted to leave his options open.
Appearing with Nauru President Baron Waqa - after signing a deal ''parallel'' to the $1.1 billion agreement struck with Papua New Guinea last month - Mr Rudd said he had been ''busy in the business of government'' and had not decided on a date. Mr Rudd said it was his intention to attend the G20 leaders' summit in St Petersburg, Russia, on September 5 and 6. That would likely rule out a speculated September 7 election.
Mr Rudd and Mr Waqa signed a memorandum of understanding that will make the 21-square-kilometre Pacific nation - home to about 10,000 inhabitants - a major destination for asylum seekers.
Mr Rudd said he was aware of Nauru's size - it is the smallest country in the United Nations - but said the number of refugees settled there would be up to the Pacific island.
As part of the deal, Nauru will receive $29.9 million in aid plus $17 million to refurbish the nation's prison, which is severely overcrowded following last month's riots.
''It's all about sending a very clear message back to the people smugglers, and we're banging that message through loud and clear.''
As a result of the riot, Immigration Minister Tony Burke said, no single males would be settled in Nauru as part of the deal.
''The priority there will be groups involving children, whether it's unaccompanied minors or family groups,'' he said. ''It's quite reasonable for the government of Nauru, given the incident more than a week ago, that they are more comfortable taking groups that involve children than they are taking single adult males.''
Mr Burke hinted further deals with regional nations could yet be
announced. ''[More announcements] will depend on decisions made by other countries. I'm prepared to say there are other countries who have raised this with us as well,'' he said.
Nauruans had a mixed reaction to the news. ''For me, it's a bad idea because Nauru is a very small island,'' said Angeline Dick, 21. ''I think it is already overpopulated and if they bring in a lot there won't be enough land.'' But Ms Dick said if the people to be settled were families and children that would be better.
At present only men are detained on the island and the riot just over a fortnight ago by 119 of the 541 asylum seekers has left many locals angry and suspicious. The prospect of permanent refugee settlements worries some.
''It depends what kind of people they are,'' said DJ Brechtefeld. ''After seeing the riot, you don't know. If they [the government] trust them, it should be OK. But where would they stay? Will they build some place for them?''
Australia has already funded two camps for asylum seekers in what is known as ''Topside'', a plain of ragged exposed rocks left from phosphate mining. Some locals believe the only land available for new migrants would be in this barren landscape, with the narrow coastal stretches jealously guarded by landowners.
Nauru President Baron Waqa said asylum seekers were not just a problem for Australia. ''It is a regional solution for us as well and we've happily engaged ourselves right from the start with the original Pacific Solution and nothing has changed,'' he said.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the Nauru announcement was about gearing up for the election, not a real solution to solve the asylum seeker problem. ''This announcement delivers no real change in the capacity of offshore processing on Nauru, and the prospect of resettlement is remote.''
Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young was quick to condemn the announcement. ''Dumping young children, mothers and children who are all alone on Nauru is heartless and irresponsible,'' she said.