To help unstable islands, Australia mulls work visas

A panel urges more visas for unskilled Pacific islanders.

A government advisory panel has recommended granting Australian work visas to tens of thousands of seasonal unskilled workers from neighboring Pacific islands in order to save the tiny countries from economic ruin.

The recommendation by the Core Group, commissioned by the government to reexamine foreign aid, marks a significant shift in thought from Australia's tight restrictions on immigration.

While Canberra has long used security concerns as a justification for a host of tough border measures, the panel has turned the security argument on its head by suggesting that failed island economies pose a security risk to the region.

"The government should consider developing a Pacific unskilled migration window to facilitate migration especially from Melanesia and the microstates," reads the Core Group report. "For Microstates such as Nauru, Kiribati and Tuvalu, it is highly unlikely that these economies will be viable in the absence of migration opportunities."

Ellie Wainwright, one of the people that helped prepare the white paper, says that post-Sept. 11, 2001, the government has been shifting away from a passive policy of "benign neglect" in the Pacific islands. That policy had relied mostly on giving aid - some $50 billion since 1970 - and avoiding the appearance of having colonial aspirations in the region.

But recent studies show that the aid has not been effective at stemming crime and money laundering in many of the islands.

"Australia was forced to take note of the fact that states in decline actually posed a security threat and encouraged trans-national crime, money laundering, and easy people movement," says Ms. Wainwright, an expert on Pacific islands at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, an independent think tank in Canberra.

US pressure after 9/11 also played a role. "The US expected Australia now to take care of its own backyard which has a long shared history with this country, and now has a growing crime rate."

She notes that Asian organized crime is growing in Papua New Guinea and drug hauls are common.

Other analysts say that the security threat from these areas has been exaggerated.

"These islands are tiny, with poor infrastructure. Most terrorists today require a good telecom system and a certain basic level of amenities, and my guess is that the Pacific would never be a base for groups like Al Qaeda," says Satish Chand, a native Fijian and the director of the Pacific Policy Program at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Nevertheless, Australia has a moral obligation to help its poorer neighbors, Mr. Chand says. "Just in the same way as Europe takes care of Africa, and the US takes care of Latin America, now Australia must take care of the South Pacific."

Particularly vulnerable are places like Kiribati, where 20 out of 33 atolls are at risk from rising sea levels and natural disasters. The small population of 85,000 is expected to double in 20 years, putting enormous pressure on the subsistence economy.

"Thousands of students leave school every year and only 10 to 15 percent of them get jobs," says Ngauea Uatioa, the editor of Kiritabati's New Star newspaper. Many of those who do not get jobs turn to crime out of frustration, he says.

The Australian government has so far adamantly refused to let in unskilled workers from Kiribati as well as Nauru, Papua New Guinea (PNG), and others, saying that many laborers become visa overstayers. It's not known yet whether the panel recommendations will be implemented.

However, the current policy has come under pressure after it was revealed recently that Canberra gives temporary work visas to 100,000 backpackers from Europe and North America every year which makes them eligible for jobs such as fruit-picking - something the islanders excel at and where the extra cash would go a long way to help their families back home.

"I have lived in PNG, the Solomons, and Vanuatu and I know that the inhabitants there have a very strong attachment to their land and to kinship," says Bob Sercombe, opposition Labor spokesman for overseas aid. He argues that the problem of laborers overstaying their visas is exaggerated. "Most of them are happy to return home after a few months."

Indeed, a recent referendum in Tokelau on independence from New Zealand shows the spirits of pride felt by inhabitants of even the tiniest specks in the Pacific. Results of that vote are expected Thursday.

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