On a Pacific isle, Australia keeps asylum seekers on ice

Far from the view of sunbathers peppering Australia's endless beaches, a group of desperate asylum seekers on the tiny Pacific Island of Nauru have forced their way into the continent's languid, summertime consciousness - if not onto its shores.

More than 30 asylum seekers, some who stitched their mouths shut, had undertaken a month-long hunger strike until Canberra agreed to send officials to review their asylum claims earlier this month.

The episode has dealt a blow to Prime Minister John Howard government's "Pacific Solution," a policy that has deterred boat people by detaining them on islands offshore - at arm's length from the Australian legal system and media. The Australian public and the government of Nauru are now reevaluating the law's costs, both fiscal and humanitarian.

"The government is trying to send a strong message to people-smugglers [but] I think this Nauru crisis has shown clearly that there should be a more empathetic way to go about dealing with the individuals involved," says Gerard Henderson, the executive director of the Sydney Institute, a privately funded current-affairs forum.

The asylum seekers, mostly from Afghanistan, are the remnants of a surge in boat people that arrived in 2001. Prompted by the high number of illegal tugs - 54 boats and 4,137 boat people between 2000 and 2001 - the government hit upon its Pacific Solution. Under the plan, Canberra agreed to pay South Pacific islands to hold illegal asylum seekers in detention centers until their claims had been processed.

While most of the Pacific Islands rejected this offer, cash-strapped Nauru - with little infrastructure and dependent on imports for everything from fresh water to fuel and electricity - took in about 1,000 asylum seekers in exchange for a total of $31 million for two years.

The 284 asylum seekers who remain in Nauru, living in a detention center at the edge of an all but abandoned phosphate mine, have refused to return to Afghanistan and countries in the Middle East for fear of persecution. Denied refugee status, they claim that they were not given proper interpreters and that their interviews were rushed and unfair during initial processing.

Prevented from being processed on the Australian mainland, the rejected refugees have no recourse to Australia's courts. No independent observers, legal representatives, or media have been allowed to visit the remote camps. The Pacific Solution remains attractive to some Australians as a way to keep tabs on refugees, discourage new ones, and facilitate an orderly departure if their refugee claims are rejected.

But Nauru grew uncomfortable with the fasting protesters who refused to leave. "We don't want Nauru to be remembered as a place where people were put to death," Nauru's finance minister, Kinza Clodumar, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

After closed-door talks with Nauru, Canberra ended its hands-off approach and dispatched the government team.

Still, the administration maintains that the Pacific Solution is working: Only two boatloads of asylum seekers have arrived in Australian waters since the policy was implemented, and none has arrived on the Australian mainland.

"The very fact that there are no more boats shows that it is working, as it dissuades more people from wanting to come to Australia, so why get rid of the policy if it stops people-smuggling?" says an Immigration Ministry spokesman.

The International Organization of Migration estimates that people-smuggling is a $7-10 billion annual business. Unlike drug trafficking, people-smuggling is low risk but produces similar high profits.

The Pacific Solution also worked toward helping the conservatives hold on to power for a third term in Australia. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the tough stance against boat people proved a success with the voters, who endorsed the flagging government of Mr. Howard.

"The 2001 election unleashed ... a xenophobia which, for 30 years, the previous governments had been trying to curb," says Robert Manne, professor of politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

In the 1970s, the conservative government of Malcolm Fraser almost halted the flow of Vietnamese boat people, but ultimately took in 140,000 without much protest from voters.

A second wave of boat people from Cambodia in the 1980s (numbering several hundred) were not so welcome, and it was the left-wing Labor government of Bob Hawke that built the first detention centers in Australia.

"Deep in the Australian psyche is a real panic about being isolated and undefended. It comes from the thinness of the population and total reliance on the British Navy, and results in a fear of invasion from Asia," says Mr. Manne. "If you ask people today how many boat people do they think are arriving, they have no idea - they just think it's hordes of people, thousands of them."

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