Australia offers asylum seekers up to almost $12,000 to return home

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia is offering asylum seekers in its Pacific immigration camps up to A$10,000 (S$11,745) if they voluntarily return to their home country, a report said on Saturday, prompting outrage from refugee campaigners.

Fairfax Media reported that those returning to Lebanon from detention centres on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island and the tiny Pacific state of Nauru were offered the highest amount of A$10,000.

Iranians and Sudanese were given A$7,000 if they dropped bids for refugee status, Afghans A$4,000 and those from Pakistan, Nepal and Myanmar A$3,300, the report in The Sydney Morning Herald said.

The Herald said under the previous Labor administration - in office until last September - the payments were much lower, ranging from A$1,500 to A$2,000.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has not confirmed the figures, but a spokesman said the "return packages" were "tailored to the circumstances of each case".

"The process of voluntary return is conducted in direct partnership with the International Organisation for Migration. It has been standard policy and practice for more than 10 years."

Labor's immigration spokesman Richard Marles said the government should be ensuring that asylum seekers' claims were being properly processed, not issuing "blank cheques".

"When Scott Morrison was in opposition, he opposed Labor's own reintegration packages and now he is offering sums which are triple the amount," Mr Marles told the ABC.

Australia has toughened its policy on asylum seekers in recent years, with those arriving on unauthorised boats now refused residency in Australia even if they are deemed refugees. Instead they are held in detention camps on Manus and Nauru and are expected to be resettled in those countries if their claims are valid.

Since the policy was introduced, more asylum seekers have chosen to voluntarily return to their country of origin while the number of people attempting to reach Australia by boat has dried up, with no boats arriving for six months.

Mr Morrison's spokesman said 283 people had voluntarily returned home from offshore processing centres since shortly after the conservative government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott won power in September.

But refugee campaigners criticised the idea of the payments, and said returning asylum seekers could still face persecution back home. "The idea that you would put people in a hell hole like Manus Island, treat them abysmally and then try to bribe them to go back to the appalling circumstances they left shows just how morally bankrupt this government is," Greens party leader Christine Milne said.

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