By Alison Bevege
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia will extend its Pacific Islands migrant labor program and fly aerial surveillance missions to protect valuable Pacific fisheries, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said at the Pacific Island Leaders Forum.
The meeting, held in Apia, Samoa, brought 17 Pacific Island nations plus Australia and New Zealand to the negotiating table.
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The new agreement helps tiny low-income Pacific Island nations by giving them access to Australia's large and developed economy, with migrant workers repatriating funds via overseas remittances.
The per capita gross national incomes of 11 countries in the region range from $1,540 for the Solomon Islands to $13,496 for Palau, according to World Bank figures, while Australian workers earn an average yearly salary of more than $64,000.
Australia’s population of 24 million people is highly urbanized, leading to labor shortages in rural areas.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull signed an agreement on Friday to allow 2,000 Islanders to work in rural areas over the next three years, adding to an existing seasonal worker program which supplies agricultural labor.
The micro-nations of Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu will have first access to the scheme, which will allow workers to engage in non-farm work such as care of the elderly.
The World Bank said it was in Australia’s interests to encourage stability.
“Aid dependency in the region is high, and reliance on aid alone is an unbalanced strategy. By improving employment prospects and increasing remittance flows, labor mobility helps stabilize otherwise fragile states,” it said in a new report, Pacific Possible, released at the forum.
The report said the Pacific region had the potential to create more than 500,000 new jobs and increase incomes by more than 40 percent by 2040, if they focused on developing key areas such as tourism and fisheries.
The western and central Pacific Ocean covers about 8 percent of the world’s ocean mass and contains the last healthy tuna stocks, supplying 60 percent of the world’s tuna, the report said.
Australia has agreed to fund aerial surveillance for Pacific Island member states to combat illegal fishing, with the planes to be in the air by the end of this year.
(Reporting by Alison Bevege)