The government of a tiny nation in the Pacific Ocean has announced that hundreds of asylum seekers held in an Australian immigration detention centre will no longer be locked up and will be allowed to roam free around the Island.
The Nauru government said the Regional Processing Centre (RPC) had been converted into an “open centre”, giving its inhabitants freedom of movement.
It also promised to process all outstanding refugee claims for those living in the centre — about 600 from countries such as Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Myanmar and the Middle East — within a week.
“The start of detention-free processing is a landmark day for Nauru and represents an even more compassionate programme, which was always the intention of our government,” Justice Minister David Adeang said.
The Nauru RPC was set up as part of Australia’s hardline asylum-seeker policies under which those arriving on people-smuggling boats are not held in Australian territory.
Another camp is located on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
Adeang said Australia was assisting the transition to an open centre, including providing more police support and suitable health care for the asylum-seekers.
Under the plan, the number of community liaison officers will be increased from 135 to 320 to help asylum-seekers settle in the country of 10,000.
The Australian government welcomed Nauru’s announcement, saying more limited open arrangements had been in place at the camp since February, allowing some detainees to leave the centre unescorted during agreed hours on certain days.
“We also welcome the news that the Nauruan government has undertaken to finalise the remaining refugee claims that have been under consideration for some time,” Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said in a statement.
Dutton said Canberra was committed to the regional processing arrangements.
“We will continue to support the government of Nauru… to deliver settlement services to refugees,” he added.
Refugee advocates, who allege abuses, including rape, have occurred on the island, said the change was an 11th-hour move that coincided with an Australian court case this week challenging the legality of Canberra’s policy.
Daniel Webb from the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre said fundamental problems with the policy remained.
“A transition to an open centre (is) an important and hard-won improvement, but letting people go for a walk does not resolve the fundamental problems caused by indefinitely warehousing them on a tiny remote island,” he said.
“The men, women and children on Nauru need a real solution — settlement in a safe place where they can rebuild their lives.
“Instead they’re being left languishing in an environment that is clearly unsafe for women and children.”