By Nic Maclellan
Australia and Papua New Guinea have announced the closure of Canberra’s offshore refugee processing program by the end of this year, leaving responsibility for the remaining asylum seekers and refugees to Port Moresby. At the same time, Nauru will now take on “enduring” responsibility for Australia’s offshore program.
The decision comes twenty years after the so-called “Pacific Solution” was first established. During the 2001 Tampa crisis, Prime Minister John Howard desperately sought locations in the Pacific to establish offshore refugee processing centres. Fiji, Tuvalu, Palau, and Kiribati were approached by Australian diplomats, but all refused to play along. Even Timor-Leste was considered as a site for camps, even though the islands were not yet independent and still recovering from Indonesian human rights atrocities and destruction of infrastructure just two years before.
Only two countries finally agreed – both former Australian dependencies – and camps were established on Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, allowing Australia to keep asylum seekers arriving by boat away from its shores.
I wrote my first report on Australia’s Pacific Solution in 2001. That year, the first in a series of Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) between Australia and Papua New Guinea said refugees would leave in six months “or as short a time as is reasonably necessary.” Now, twenty years on and five years after the PNG Supreme Court declared the program illegal, both countries are admitting defeat and Canberra is dumping the problem on its northern neighbour.
These changes come at a time when the PNG and Nauru’s economies have been battered by debt and disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic. They also follow the withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan, with the likelihood that more desperate people will seek asylum in the region after fleeing from the Taliban. Operation Sovereign Borders – which refuses asylum seekers the right to land in Australia by boat – will continue indefinitely.
PNG steps away
On 6 October, Australian Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews and PNG immigration minister Westly Nukundj announced the Australian Government regional processing contracts in Papua New Guinea will cease on 31 December 2021 and will not be renewed: “From 1 January 2022, PNG Government will assume full management of regional processing services in PNG and full responsibility for those who remain.”
In 2016, PNG’s Supreme Court found that the detention of refugees on Manus Island was illegal under the PNG Constitution. By late 2019, most asylum seekers refused refugee status, as well as refugees who couldn’t be resettled in third countries, had been relocated to Port Moresby.
Now, with 88 refugees and 36 asylum seekers still in Papua New Guinea under the Australian program, the PNG government will provide a permanent migration pathway for those wishing to remain. This will include access to citizenship, long-term support, settlement packages and family reunification. Papua New Guinea will also provide support to people temporarily in Port Moresby awaiting movement to a third country.
The deal has angered church and community groups who have long provided pastoral care to the isolated refugees. Father Giorgio Licini from the PNG Catholic Bishops Conference told the ABC that Papua New Guinea was not set up to care for refugees and “doesn’t have a structure to resettle refugees. It is really unfortunate that Australia came up with this idea and something should be done about it.”
Many of the remaining asylum seekers cannot return to home countries like Iran or Afghanistan. Under the new agreement, Australia will now “support anyone subject to regional processing arrangements in Papua New Guinea who wishes to voluntarily transfer to Nauru.” Meanwhile, the Morrison government continues to spurn an offer from New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to resettle 150 refugees a year from Australia’s offshore system.
The first Nauru detention camps established in 2001 were closed in March 2008, following the election victory of ALP Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. But following a surge of boat arrivals from Indonesia, with desperate asylum seekers drowning at sea, the Julia Gillard government reintroduced the offshore processing of asylum seekers in September 2012.
The latest change of policy for Papua New Guinea comes after the Australian and Nauruan governments signed an MOU in September, to establish an enduring regional processing capability in Nauru. This is the latest in a series of MOUs between the two countries over the last 20 years on management of the detention centres.
After 2001, these MOUs set out clear requirements that had to be met if Nauru was to continue receiving aid under the refugee program. These included a study on the privatisation of the RONTEL telecommunications authority and the “phased introduction of a broader user-pays system for power services.” The 2005 MOU set out requirements for changes to the public sector, explaining that ongoing aid was conditional on job losses and wage cuts for Nauruan public servants (described in the MOU as “implementation of the public sector reform strategy, resulting in implementation of an affordable scale of salary payments and design of a strategy for a substantial reduction in the size of the Nauru public service.”)
Parallel to the RAMSI intervention in Solomon Islands, the Pacific Islands Forum launched the Pacific Regional Assistance to Nauru (PRAN) in 2004. Under PRAN, the post of Nauru Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade was held by the former Forum Deputy Secretary General. Australian Treasury official Peter Depta took up the position of Nauru Secretary for Finance in July 2004. All Nauru government expenditure was managed by an Australian-led finance team in the Nauru Ministry of Finance until 2010, with staff seconded from Canberra serving as Secretary, Economic Advisor and Budget Advisor.
Over twenty years, the Australian government has spent billions of dollars to push responsibility for processing and resettlement onto its Pacific neighbours. This led to widespread criticism – from within and outside government – about the waste and inefficiency of efforts to rapidly relocate thousands of people to these isolated camps.
A 2016 Australian National Audit Office report found “serious and persistent deficiencies” in contracting, benefitting Australian and international companies such as Transfield, Serco and Canstruct. As ANAO diplomatically noted in the audit report: “The Australian Government intended that these procurement processes would rein in the growing expense associated with managing the centres. In both cases, the approach adopted by the department did not facilitate such an outcome.”
Above all, the last twenty years of the “Pacific Solution” has led to massive human cost for the asylum seekers as well as the host communities. Refugees have faced significant mental health trauma, and lengthy battles with Australian authorities to obtain permission to travel for specialist medical treatment.
During a visit to Nauru in 2018, I spoke with a young refugee, who was desperate for resettlement to a third country, saying: “Please, this island makes us crazy.” At the same time, a young Nauruan man told me: “I was a child when the asylum seekers came. I was really pleased. I thought I could learn something about another culture. Now, I hate them. They are always attacking my country, criticising my leaders. I wish they would leave.”
As of 31 July, there were 107 people still on Nauru, many languishing for years without hope of resettlement. Now, with an enduring offshore processing program, young Nauruans will continue to grow up coping with Australia’s refugee policy.
As Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews has emphasised: “Australia’s strong border protection policies – including regional processing – have not changed. Anyone who attempts to enter Australia illegally by boat will be returned, or sent to Nauru.”