MELBOURNE • Nauru has unexpectedly said that all 600 asylum seekers held at a controversial Australian detention centre will be allowed to move freely around the tiny South Pacific island and that all their asylum applications will be processed this week.
New Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said last month that he was concerned about conditions in the camps but gave no indication of any major policy change, so yesterday's announcement from Nauru came as a surprise.
Asylum seekers have long been a contentious political issue in Australia, although the country has never received anywhere near the number of refugees currently flooding into Europe.
Successive Australian governments have vowed to stop asylum seekers reaching the mainland, turning boats back to Indonesia when they can and sending those it cannot to detention in camps on Manus island in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru.
The harsh conditions at the camps, including reports of systemic child abuse, have been strongly criticised by the United Nations and human rights groups.
"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," Nauru Justice Minister David Adeang said in a statement.
Australia would provide more police assistance to help Nauru with "safety, security and law enforcement", he said.
The Australian government welcomed the announcement that the camp on Nauru would now be run as an "open centre" and said "eligible transferees" had been allowed to leave the camp at designated times since February.
A statement issued by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton's office also said that the Australian government would support Nauru by funding a "contract service provider to deliver settlement services to refugees in Nauru".
Australia has defended its detention policy as necessary to prevent deaths at sea. No one processed at the Nauru or Papua New Guinea camps is eligible to be settled in Australia, even if they are found to be genuine refugees.
Refugee advocates, who allege that abuses including rape have occurred on Nauru, said the change was an 11th-hour move that coincided with an Australian court case this week challenging the legality of Canberra's policy.
Mr Daniel Webb from the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre said the transition to an open centre was 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".
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE