MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Thanks for the refugee camps, Nauru, how would you like to be Australian?

Published by MAC on 2003-12-19

Thanks for the refugee camps, Nauru, how would you like to be Australian?

By Mark Forbes, Syndey Morning Herald

December 19, 2003

Nadi - Nauru's entire population could be offered Australian citizenship and resettlement under a proposal being developed by the Howard Government.

The Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, has ordered his department to draw up options for the future of the tiny island state, which officials believe will not be viable after Australian payments to maintain camps for asylum seekers end.

Offering citizenship to the more than 12,000 Nauruans is one option. Others include granting Nauru an uninhabited Pacific island or a restructuring of its finances and increased long-term Australian help.

Granting Nauruans an island is highly improbable, Mr Downer believes, but he told the Herald that Nauru was confronting difficulties that could not be ignored. "We can't just abandon Nauru. We can't let the 10,000 people in Nauru not have any fresh water or electricity."

Mr Downer doubted that Nauruans could be offered a part of Australia to settle on unless they became citizens. But citizenship was not the most likely option because of Nauruan resistance and the precedent it would set for immigration laws. As well, Nauruans loved their country and did not want to leave.

But Australian officials believe the country is almost unsustainable. It lacks fresh water, vegetables and reliable power and has been kept running only by the $30 million in funding over the past two years to maintain the detention camps as part of the 'Pacific solution'.

Australia administered Nauru until 1968 and would continue to be asked to prop it up. In the long run it would be cheaper to ensure a long-term solution.

The phosphate that once made Nauru's population the world's second-richest is gone, and mining has devastated about 80 per cent of its 21 square kilometres.

The Government identifies Nauru as Australia's next priority in the Pacific after the intervention in the Solomon Islands and the $2.5 billion, five-year rescue for Papua New Guinea.

Officials have been ordered to finalise a proposal for Nauru by the end of January.

Mr Downer said Australia was taking a more robust approach in the Pacific because of the risks of having failed states nearby.

An offer of Australian citizenship would allow Nauruans to gradually leave their island, or stay if they wished. The proposal is also intended to prompt Nauru's Government to face the nation's long-term crisis.

Nauru's President, Rene Harris, volunteered to detain asylum seekers during the 2001 Tampa crisis. About 300 remain, with about 35 on a hunger strike and demanding to be sent to Australia.

Mr Harris obtained the $30 million in Australian assistance in return for hosting the camps over the past two years and Australia wants to extend the agreement for at least another year.

Australia also provides about $3 million in regular annual aid, and will give $2.5 million for the next 10 years in compensation for the phosphate exploitation.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its phosphate bonanza, Nauru has been dogged by instability and corruption. With the added burden of poor investments, it is now effectively bankrupt.

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