Rudd’s PNG “solution”
- The Regional Resettlement Arrangement (RRA) goes further than the Pacific Solution introduced by Julia Gillard in August 2012, by allowing Australia to send asylum seekers to PNG for processing, and resettlement. It is resettlement that is the significant element of the agreement. In this way Australia is completely violating the human rights of boat arrivals, rejecting its obligations of protection to refugees while simultaneously leaning on its poor neighbour, PNG, to accept anyone Australia sends there.
- The Labor government has stated that it will not allow any asylum seekers arriving by boat after 19 July, 2013 to be resettled in Australia –although this is not written into the agreement. This echoes what John Howard said when he started the Pacific Solution in 2001. But the RRA itself only says that anyone arriving after 19 July is “liable” to be sent – so whether or not people are sent is not set in stone. It depends on a political decision of the government. The RRA is for one year – and is reviewable after that.
- PNG is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, but has seven so-called “reservations” (including not being committed to allow refugees the right to work, public education, housing and freedom of movement). The RRA says that PNG will “take steps to withdraw” those reservations with respect to asylum seekers sent from Australia.
- There is limited capacity to hold more asylum seekers on Manus Island. After moving all existing asylum seekers off and expanding the number of tents, the government can perhaps send 600 at most in the short term. The Manus Island construction contractor has told The Australian that no expansion is possible before January. The Manus Island governor says it will take two years to build a permanent detention centre there. This means that, despite the announcement, new boat arrivals are likely to be kept in detention in Australia.
- A UNHCR report in July 2013 condemned the conditions in detention on Manus Island, saying, “asylum seekers reported issues with the heat, privacy, hygiene and access to medical services.” A number of former workers have broken confidentiality agreements to speak out in the media about the appalling conditions and lack of medical supplies in the detention centre.
- The holes in the RRA also mean that it is not certain everyone will be resettled in PNG. PNG Prime Minister O’Neil has said that PNG is not committed to resettling “failed” asylum seekers. This potentially could include stateless asylum seekers.
- The RRA is undoubtedly illegal under international law. Asylum seeker boats intercepted by Australia are Australia’s responsibility. The fact that asylum seekers will be partially processed in Australia before they are sent to Manus Island also makes them Australia’s responsibility. The Refugee Convention refers to obligations by the signatory states to provide protection and resettlement, and nowhere considers the “outsourcing” of these obligations to third countries that are far less able to provide durable solutions. It also says the asylum seekers must not be discriminated against on the basis of their method of arrival in the signatory state.
- There is the possibility of a legal challenge in Australia. The High Court decision that struck down Gillard’s Malaysia Solution in 2011 said that a “third country” must be able to guarantee certain freedoms and rights, which PNG cannot do. A legal challenge is also being considered in PNG itself.
- But overwhelmingly, the RRA is a political, not a legal, agreement between Australia and PNG. Australia has arrogantly used its money (Australia is promising an unspecified amount of money for roads, naval bases and universities) and regional power to force PNG to agree to an arrangement that violates fundamental human rights. That makes it susceptible to political pressure. In 2001, John Howard also said that no refugees from Nauru would ever set foot in Australia. But the majority of refugees from Nauru did come to Australia, because of protests in Nauru and Australia. This can be won again.
- This won’t be settled by the election – both main political parties are committed to off shore processing and the PNG “solution”. But a concerted campaign, up to and most importantly, beyond the election can make sure that Rudd’s PNG “solution” is unworkable.
Manus Island and the Pacific solution
The Labor government has revived John Howard’s Pacific Solution by passing legislation to reopen offshore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island. This is nothing more than an attempt to “stop the boats” and subvert Australia’s commitment to the Refugee Convention and its obligation to welcome asylum seekers at its borders.
- Read Pamela Curr from Melbourne’s Asylum Seeker Resource Centre on the experience of Nauru under the Howard government
The Pacific Solution originated in the Tampa crisis of August 2001 when the captain of the Norwegian vessel the Tampa, at the request of the Australian government, rescued asylum seekers from a sinking boat. Prime Minister Howard then tried to stop the Tampa entering Australian waters.
Courting short-term electoral advantage, the government used armed forces to seize the Tampa and carry its asylum-seeker passengers to remote off-shore detention centres. In total 1637 asylum seekers were diverted and processed in detention centres on the Pacific islands of Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. A fact sheet on the Pacific Solution by RAC (Vic) is available here and a collection of articles on the policy from RAC (Canberra) is here.
David Marr wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald on the Pacific Solution, how it began and why in the end the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers held on Nauru and Manus Island ended up being accepted by Australia as refugees–after the waste of millions of dollars and immense suffering and mental trauma for refugees
A single asylum seeker, Aladin Sisalem, was left isolated in the Manus Island detention centre by himself for ten months before finally being granted refugee status, at a cost of $23,000 a day. Details of his story can be read here.
Leaked blueprint for East Timor centre
Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s plan for a regional asylum seekers’ processing centre in East Timor were her previous attempt to establish an offshore processing facility in the region. But following opposition from political parties and non-government organisations, an announcement by President Jose Ramos Horta in April 2011 that there would be no further talks on the issue killed the plan.
In February ABC’s Lateline program made public a leaked “concept plan” on the “East Timor solution” prepared by the Gillard government to outline its plans for the centre. It revealed a plan for a 1000 to 4000-person centre, and that Australia hoped to push onto Timor Leste responsibility for dealing with legal appeals on refugee status determinations and for organising any deportations.
Lateline’s report on the “concept plan” is at this link
The full leaked document can be viewed here
Opposition to the plan in Timor Leste
In July last year Timor Leste’s parliament voted against Australia’s plan for it to host a detention centre. A number of Timorese Ministers and political leaders have also spoken out against the plans. In late January 2011, Timorese Deputy Prime Minister Jose Luis Guterres indicated his opposition to it being built in Timor Leste too.
When Australia’s Immigration Minister visited Timor Leste in October an umbrella group of NGOs opposing the detention centre handed him a public petition. Read their press release here
Open letter: No ‘East Timor solution’
Refugee Action Coalition has initiated an “Open letter to President Ramos Horta and the people of Timor Leste” to encourage the opposition in East Timor and demonstrate the widespread opposition that exists in Australia to this proposal. Current signatories include John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, union leader Sally McManus, and refugee advocates including Phil Glendenning, Sr Susan Connelly and many others. The full letter and signatories can be viewed at this page.
Image at top: the detention centre of Nauru that formed part of the “Pacific Solution”
The Malaysia Agreement
Julia Gillard’s Malaysia deal is now stalled: following the High Court decision that struck it down in September 2011, the government failed to get new laws through parliament to revive it. The Gillard government’s “expert panel” approved the Malaysia deal as a key goal in attempting to “stop the boats”, but said it needs further negotiations with Malaysia to improve its human rights protections for asylum seekers sent back to Malaysia.
The Labor government reaffirmed its support for the Malaysia deal by enshrining offshore processing in Labor policy for the first time at its national conference in December last year.
Julia Gillard’s deal to send asylum seekers attempting to arrive in Australia by boat to Malaysia was just the latest chapter in Australia’s attempts to dodge its international obligations as a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees. Under the plan, Australia would send 800 boat arrivals back to Malaysia in exchange for accepting 4000 refugees currently in Malaysia over four years.
Malaysia is a repressive authoritarian state and a human rights pariah which is regularly criticized by groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. It treats refugees and asylum seekers as illegal undocumented workers, so they are the targets of particular maltreatment. They are often arrested and held in filthy, insect ridden and overcrowded detention camps.
A collection of articles and fact sheets on the plan is below
Fact Sheet on the “Malaysian solution”
by Refugee Action Coalition
“Tens myths about Australia’s plan to swap refugees with Malaysia”
Compiled by Asylum Seeker Resource Centre
“Hard life for refugees in Malaysia”
The West Australian, May 17, 2011
“All migrants and refugees in Malaysia, as long as they’re non-citizens, are susceptible to regular and frequent and persistent harassment by authorities on threat of arrest – and this is regular thing for all of them. Because of the susceptibility to harassment, arrest, detention, whipping and trafficking – in that order – these are the reasons it is a bad idea to send them here.”–Malaysian lawyer Renuka Balasubramaniam
“Malaysia’s Detention Centres Are No Orderly ‘Queue'”
By Michelle Dimasi, New Matilda
When Michelle Dimasi tried to visit an Afghan asylum seeker in detention in Malaysia, she was told that ‘for his own safety’ he was not allowed visitors. She hasn’t heard from him since
“UN questions legality of Malaysia refugee swap”, ABC online
The United Nations high commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has questioned Australia’s asylum seeker deal with Malaysia, saying the plan could violate international law.
Opposition in Malaysia to the deal
The “Malaysian solution” has drawn opposition from a range of groups in Malaysia including the Malaysian Bar Council, human rights organisation Suaram, Lawyers for Liberty and refugee rights groups. On Wednesday 25 May, Malaysian time, local civil society groups submitted a joint memorandum to the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur protesting the refugee deal.
The memorandum noted that “Malaysia has no domestic act to protect the rights and security of refugees and asylum seekers as well as no legal recognition of their status. This creates significant barriers in their livelihood options in accessing their right to work, education and health. Furthermore, asylum seekers and refugees live in constant fear of the authorities, in particular, the police, Immigration authorities and the People’s Volunteer Corps”. The full text can be read below.
Lateline reveals Malaysia wants human rights out of deal
On June 2, Lateline revealed a draft text of the agreement between Australia and Malaysia, which showed Malaysia wanted to remove any reference to safeguards on the human rights of asylum seekers sent back there. Read the full report below
Malaysia edits rights out of refugee deal
Lateline, June 2, 2011