12 Dec 2013

Niueans unhappy with government offer to host Australia's asylum seekers

5:26 pm on 12 December 2013

While Australia and Niue consider the feasibility of the island hosting Canberra's asylum seekers, opposition to the idea is mounting.

The premier Toke Talagi has revealed that his government has offered to help Australia process its asylum seekers, saying they want to be a good neighbour and a responsible member of the Pacific Islands Forum.

Don Wiseman has more:

Australia has camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea currently housing about 1,700 asylum seekers who had arrived by boat in Australia. The camps, which have drawn widespread international condemnation, employ hundreds in both locations and are a significant revenue source. There have been problems, most notably when a riot broke out on Nauru and a hastily organised citizens militia descended on the camp. Toke Talagi says he is not aware of the issues the other camps have experienced, but says his government wanted to help Australia and possibly house vulnerable women and children. He says both countries have agreed to conduct a study to determine if the island has the capability to host the would-be refugees.

"TOKE TALAGI: Because we are working together with them to determine whether it is feasible or not. It is not a question of we have made an offer and therefore we are ready to take refugees tomorrow. It is not. It will probably take about, possibly, one to two to three years before anything is actually actioned on the ground."

But MP Stan Kalauni says the country does not have the resources to house asylum seekers and the people do not want them. He is disparaging about the premier's offer.

STAN KALAUNI: He's completely gone bananas. People have already started talking about it, they are complaining - why is he even considering that. Everyone is trying to avoid the refugee issues, and people here don't want refugees here. We don't have the facilities, infrastructure or the capabilities to even handle processing refugees.

Another MP Terry Coe says a majority of people are against the idea.

TERRY COE: They know that there is a lot of money involved in it, for the country, but they do not want the social and culture problems that they are having in Nauru and in PNG and they are very scared that the people will not be able to leave Niue and will stay here for the rest of their lives if another country will not take them.

The regional representative for the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, Richard Towle, says they haven't heard of any concrete discussions with countries other than PNG and Nauru hosting Australia's asylum seekers. But he says the UNHCR feels it is not possible to do refugee status determination properly in the remote island nations.

RICHARD TOWLE: Secondly we don't think it fits with the spirit of regional co-operation we are trying to encourage throughout the South East Asian region and that is to get a greater degree of engagement by countries in South East Asia to help deal with the issues, in transit and source countries. The arrangements in the Pacific are largely a deflection of Australian asylum obligations onto small island states which are really not able or prepared to do this work effectively.

Premier Toke Talagi says it could be up to three years before a possible arrangement with Australia goes ahead but the major issue would be staffing. Niue has few people out of work, in fact one of the constraints on its growing tourism industry is the lack of workers to clean and service the hotel and guest houses, and wait in the cafes.

Most of Niue's financial support comes from New Zealand and while a ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson says they are aware that Niue has approached Australia, their understanding is that the island does not feature in Australia's arrangements for dealing with asylum seekers.