Australia moots radical future for bankrupt Nauru

Kathy Marks
Saturday 20 December 2003 01:00

Australia's mini-imperialist ambitions were reinforced yesterday after it emerged that it was considering the extraordinary step of offering citizenship to all 10,000 inhabitants of the South Pacific state of Nauru.

The possibility of resettling all Nauruans in Australia, or even giving them a vacant island of their own to move to, was floated by the Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer. Mr Downer said Canberra was "very concerned" about the situation in the tiny island state, which is bankrupt and widely regarded as having no viable future.

Australia has propped up Nauru for the past two years, giving it massive amounts of aid in exchange for having its unwanted asylum-seekers housed by the former British colony. The phosphate mines that once made Nauru one of the world's wealthiest nations have been stripped bare and the island is plagued by a shortage of water and fresh vegetables, as well as chronic power problems.

Australia's apparent generosity towards its neighbour is in stark contrast to its treatment of 284 mainly Afghan asylum-seekers still being held in two detention camps on Nauru. Thirty-five men have been on a hunger strike for the past 10 days to protest against Canberra's refusal to grant them refugee status, and 18 are in hospital.

The radical options being considered by Australia in relation to Nauru have fuelled suspicions that it is seeking to recast the region in its own image.

Australia led an intervention force to restore law and order in the Solomon Islands earlier this year, and is preparing to send armed police to Papua New Guinea to prevent it from degenerating into anarchy.

Canberra's sudden interest in an area where it has traditionally taken a hands-off approach is said to be motivated by a desire to emulate, on a small scale, the global policing role adopted by the United States. It is also concerned that failing Pacific states could become havens for terrorists and drug smugglers.

Mr Downer said in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper that he had ordered officials to draw up options for Nauru because he could not "just turn my back" on the country once it ceased to be useful as a place for processing asylum-seekers.

He later played down the idea of giving Australian passports to Nauruans and resettling them, observing that other Pacific nations might expect similar treatment. Nauru's President, Rene Harris, dismissed the citizenship idea, saying it would undermine the country's identity and culture.

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