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Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen on Monday said he hoped to begin sending asylum-seekers who arrive by boat to the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru later this week.
With Australia facing a record influx of asylum-seekers arriving by sea, Canberra last month announced plans to send them to Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island in a policy aimed at stemming the flow.
Bowen tabled a document in parliament on Monday designating Nauru as a regional processing country under the Migration Act so boatpeople can be sent to the small state to await their visa decision.
“Subject to both houses (of parliament) passing a resolution approving the designation, the designation will allow for the transfer of irregular maritime arrivals who arrived after 13 August to Nauru,” Bowen said.
Canberra announced its intention to transfer asylum-seekers to Nauru and Papua New Guinea in mid-August as part of a tough new policy to deter them from paying people-smugglers to attempt the dangerous sea voyage.
Since then 2 087 asylum-seekers have arrived by boat - close to capacity for the camps on Manus and Nauru, which will accommodate a total of 2 100 once completed.
Bowen would not comment on who would be part of the first transfer to Nauru or whether children would be sent but said that he hoped the first group would be transferred within days.
“Construction work on the temporary facility is nearing completion and the government expects to be able to begin transferring people to Nauru later this week,” Bowen said in a statement.
More than 9 796 asylum-seekers have arrived in Australia on boats in 2012, many of them Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians who have paid people-smugglers to ferry them from Indonesia to Australia.
Offshore processing is a sensitive issue in Australia, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard adopting the policy after months of bitter political debate and after several boats capsized en route, drowning scores of people.
The policy signals a return to the practice of the previous conservative government, which sent asylum-seekers to Nauru and Manus, that centre-left Labor rolled back soon after taking office in late 2007.
The opposition supports offshore processing but said the government's promise that asylum-seekers won't be resettled quicker just because they are processed on Nauru or PNG will see them stranded in the Pacific for years.
“The policy that (they) have adopted means people could expect to wait on Nauru for five years,” opposition spokesman Scott Morrison said. - Sapa-AFP