Asylum seekers who arrive in Australian waters by boat will no longer have the chance to be settled in Australia under new policies announced by prime minister Kevin Rudd.
Instead, asylum seekers arriving by boat will be held in an expanded facility at Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and those who are found to be genuine refugees will be settled in PNG, under an agreement with the PNG government.
Announcing the changes, Rudd admitted it is “a very hardline decision”.
The Conversation spoke to experts for their response to Rudd’s announcement.
Sara Davies, Senior Research Fellow, International Relations at Griffith University
Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd and PNG prime minister Peter O'Neill’s statement on the Refugee Resettlement Arrangement (RRA) is a new chapter for how signatory states (and non-signatory states observing this development) interpret their obligations vis-a-vis the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. A wealthy, developed country such as Australia has justified transferring its asylum seeking population to a neighbouring country that is ranked by the World Bank as a Lower Middle Income country with outstanding challenges in the provision of improved living standards for its population.
Historically, under the implementation of the 1951 Convention, the burden sharing role was reversed. For example, under the 1989 Comprehensive Plan for Assessment (CPA), the Asia Pacific region developed a regional framework where developing countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia hosted Indochinese asylum seekers until they were (UNHCR) processed and then resettled in countries such as Australia, Canada, and France. Could this switch of roles regarding sovereign responsibility and generosity under the international refugee resettlement scheme may become a strong feature in the proposed international conference on burden sharing that Rudd has suggested to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon?
Rudd has suggested that, as a gesture of goodwill, his government would be willing to consider Australia further increasing its humanitarian intake (beyond the 27,000 suggested by the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers) at his proposed international conference. The need for developing countries to stop “passing the parcel”, as Rudd termed the protracted refugee situation in the press conference, should be met by long term endurable commitments to global burden sharing by all developing and developed states. The UNHCR processing centres - central conduit for refugee status determination and resettlement - has been globally undermined by the people smuggling model, Rudd said. But people smugglers have flourished because states do not want to share sustainable refugee status determination, protection and resettlement obligations; UNHCR is as strong as its member states allow it to be.
The complete abrogation of responsibility on Australia’s part to accept asylum seekers contrasts with Papua New Guinea agreement to, subject to annual review of the RRA and assistance provided to sustain the RRA, drop all reservations to the 1951 Convention. This is perilous terrain for the UNHCR - it will be vital to hear the High Commissioner’s response.
Jonathan Schultz, Researcher in Political Science at University of Melbourne
The announcement that Australia will transfer not only the detention but the final settlement of refugees to PNG follows an unfortunate pattern of making use of its former colony in pursuit of purely Australian objectives. While PNG faces a refugee problem of its own from neighbouring Indonesian-controlled West Papua, today’s agreement only covers those asylum seekers transferred from Australia.
PNG is wildly unsuitable as a resettlement location for refugees. Its Melanesian society, composed of over 800 distinct language groups underpinned by attachment to land, leaves little room for landless newcomers. Its indicators of human development, among the worst in the world, are testament to the difficulties that it faces in the contemporary world. It beggars belief that, with all the best intentions and backed by Australian financial resources, PNG will be able to provide adequate support for resettled refugees.
The fact that the Rudd government was able to conclude this agreement with PNG speaks volumes about the relationship between the two countries. Successive Australian governments have invoked the language of partnership while viewing the relationship through the lens of immediate Australian strategic and commercial interests. Today’s agreement surpasses the initial 2001 “Pacific Solution” in its cynical subordination of the PNG’s struggles to Australian electoral politics.
Andrew Jakubowicz, Professor of Sociology and Codirector of Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Research Centre at University of Technology, Sydney
Given the prohibition situation that the government is trying to move through, the next step has to be effective alternative points and real options for asylum application along the routes to safety. Otherwise the smugglers will look for alternative access points across Australia’s north, amplifying danger and likelihood of violence and death.
Critical too will be the quality of opportunity for positive settlement in PNG. PNG is very close to Australia: at low water you can walk in, and the Tiwi Islands could become a very porous border. Meanwhile in Australia a criminal underground provides false identities - not asylum but maybe a sort of safety. And Afghanistan, Pakistan and points east and west are going to become very dangerous real soon now. At least Kevin Rudd recognises this is a first step, but the business model isn’t dead yet.
Alison Gerard, Senior Lecturer in Justice Studies at Charles Sturt University
Prime minister Kevin Rudd’s “Pacific Solution #3” is irreconcilable with our international refugee obligations. Like other proposals put forward by this government, it is likely to be robustly contested in court as a breach of basic human rights. Internationally, it stands out as one of the most reactive and punitive asylum seeker policies, lacking in both compassion and a sophisticated understanding of migration in the Asia Pacific.
The workability of this framework is doubtful. It will rely on the cooperation of a web of other countries across the region to volunteer to resettle asylum seekers who have legally arrived in Australia, a notoriously difficult diplomatic task.
This policy supposedly targets people smuggling operations. In the past we have seen people smuggling operations capably shift and adapt to new border security measures introduced by governments. While ever the need to leave one’s country of origin exists, and safer means of travelling directly are restricted (primarily by the use of strict visa requirements barring entry to those from asylum seeker source countries such as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma, Sri Lanka, Somalia), people smuggling operations will remain a constant and lucrative part of the migration industry.
Expanding operations in the tiny pacific island of Papua New Guinea will grow an industry based on what the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] have described as “arbitrary detention”. Current reports suggest that the processing of claims is slow. We know that these conditions of protracted legal uncertainty have an impact on the physical and mental health of asylum seekers.
Azadeh Dastyari, Associate of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, Lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Monash University at Monash University
Today’s announcement is perhaps harsher than any asylum policy we have had in our recent history. It attempts to achieve what the Howard government’s Pacific Solution could not: that is, to ensure that no refugees are in fact resettled in Australia. Whether it can achieve this aim is a big question. The success of Australia’s plan relies on the ability of PNG to resettle large numbers of refugees. Given PNG’s relative poverty and inte rnational challenges, this will be no easy task. It seems unrealistic to assume that the so called RRA [Regional Resettlement Agreement] can be a sustainable solution to Australia’s refugee “problem”.
The difference between the RRA and the Howard era “Pacific Solution” as it operated in Nauru is that PNG is a signatory to the UNU refugee convention, where as prior to 2011 Nauru was not. The announcement that PNG would withdraw its reservations with regards to wage earning employment (Article 17:1), housing (Article 21), public education (Article 22:1), freedom of movement (Article 31), expulsion (Article 32) and the facilitation of the naturalisation of refugees (Article 34) is a welcome development. PNG must ensure that it abides by its entire set of obligations under the refugee convention and other human rights instruments.
What was not discussed adequately in the announcement is the continuing policy of mandatory immigration detention on Manus Island. Both Australia and PNG are signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and under article 9 of that convention are required to refrain from arbitrary detention. Immigration detention, as it currently exists on Manus Island, is in violation of article 9 of the ICCPR.
We also know, from UNHCR reports, that the detention facility in Manus Island is “harsh” and inhumane. So inhumane and unacceptable in fact, that as acknowledged in the announcement by the Minister for Immigration, children have recently been removed from the centre. Rudd said that they would need to respond to the UNHCR but there is no reason to believe that conditions in the detention facility can be improved to allow the return of children given the isolation of the centre and the lack of support to detainees.
In any case, the policy of mandatory immigration detention should be abandoned entirely if Australia and PNG are serious about compliance with their international obligations.
Kerry Murphy, Lecturer, Migration Law Program at Australian National University
The Rudd plan for asylum seekers arriving by boat is effectively Australia subcontracting its obligations under the refugee convention to a poor, developing Pacific country in order to resolve a domestic political impasse. All new arrivals by boat will be sent to PNG for assessment of their claims, and if successful, they will be resettled in PNG.
Whilst PNG is a signatory to the refugee convention, it is not a transit country and not really a resettlement country. The subcontracting of our obligations is a concern because it means that developed countries can pay poor countries to take over their international obligations.
Already most refugees live in poorer under-developed countries, and a minority are resettled in the developed countries. Already around 1.8 million refugees from Syria are registered in neighbouring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Jordan has cared for thousands of Iraqis over the years, as well as a large Palestinian refugee population. Jordan cannot subcontract responsibility for the large numbers of Syrians now arriving.
PNG is heavily under-resourced for this task, lacking basic services for many of their own population. Does the money spent on paying PNG to process the asylum seekers count as foreign aid to PNG?