Nauru has said that it will allow refugees held at a controversial Australian detention center to move freely around the tiny island. But the move has not allayed human rights concerns about conditions in the camp.
The Nauru government said on Monday that asylum seekers at the center would no longer be kept locked up, but given complete freedom of movement on the Pacific island, which has an area of some 21 square kilometers (8.1 square miles).
It also said it would ensure that all asylum applications by the 600 refugees still living on the island would be processed by the end of this week.
"The start of detention-free processing is a landmark day for Nauru and represents an even more compassionate program, which was always the intention of our government," said Justice Minister David Adeang.
The United Nations and human rights groups have strongly criticized the harsh conditions at the camp on Nauru, which was set up as part of Canberra's hardline asylum-seeker policies, under which people trying to reach Australia by boat must have their asylum claims processed outside Australian territory.
Another camp has been established on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
An independent UN investigator last month postponed a factfinding trip to Australia, complaining that the government was not cooperating in helping him gain access to the offshore camps.
'Fundamental problems remain'
Adeang said Australia, which welcomed Nauru's announcement, was providing more police support and health care for the asylum seekers to aid the transition to an "open center."
Refugee advocates, who have alleged that a number of human rights violations, including rape and child abuse, have occurred at the offshore camps, say the change coincides with a court case this week in Australia in which the legality of Canberra's refugee policy is being challenged.
A spokesman from the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Center said the move did little to help the cause of people detained on the island.
"A transition to an open center [is] and important and hard-won improvement, but letting people go for a walk does not resolve the fundamental proglems caused by indefintely warehousing them on a tiny remote island," Daniel Webb said, calling the camp environment "clearly unsafe for women and children."
Australia has defended its harsh policy, which has also seen boats carrying refugees turned back to Indonesia or other countries of departure, as being necessary to stop people drowning at sea. No one processed at the Nauru or Papua New Guinea camps is eligible to move to Australia, even if their asylum claims are adjudged to be valid.
New Australian Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull last month voiced concern about conditions in the camps, but did not indicate any major change in policy.
tj/msh (AFP, Reuters)