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"For those who've come across the seas
We've boundless plains to share
With courage let us all combine
To advance Australia fair."
The Australian national anthem, Advance Australia Fair

History

At the beginning of the Tampa crisis in August 2001, the Australian government approached a number of smaller neighbouring countries in the Pacific to establish offshore " detention centres" for asylum seekers, a move that was labelled "The Pacific Solution" by both policymakers and their critics. In the subsequent weeks, New Zealand, Nauru, and Papua New Guinea agreed to detain the boatload of 443 Tampa refugees. Other neighbouring islands, including East Timor, Fiji, Palau and Kiribati were also approached to take asylum seekers, but declined.

When questioned on its policy of shipping refugees to some of the world's poorest nations, the Australian government has tended to invoke the rhetoric of sovereignty, continually stressing their "...commitment to ensuring the integrity of Australia's borders and to the effective management and control of the movement of people to and from Australia...Underlying these commitments is the fact that Australia is a sovereign country which decides who can and who cannot enter and stay on its territory".2 And of course, the government denied that this wacky policy had anything to do with the forthcoming election.

By September 2001, the government had introduced sweeping legislative change as an attempt to strengthen border control and the management of arrivals. A few changes were made to refugee processing procedures, and in quite a radical move, the Christmas Islands and Ashmore and Cartier Islands were set outside of Australia's immigration boundaries. If your first port of call in Australia was say, Ashmore Reef (now known as an "excised offshore place" in the legislation), the Australian government could ship you off to another "declared country" for an all expenses paid detention camp holiday instead of sending you to the mainland. At present, over 1500 asylum seekers are held in offshore camps.

The stated aim of this policy was to discourage people smuggling by not allowing refugees to ever land on Australian soil, and send them somewhere deemed less attractive. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer further argued that "One of the reasons the Papua New Guinea Government was happy for us to set up this ... processing centre is they have their own problems with illegal migrants and they didn't have anywhere to process them".2

Indeed, the costs of constructing makeshift camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and processing applications has been borne entirely by Australia. Applications are processed by both Australian officials and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). The Australian government has been somewhat tardy in revealing the full cost of the policy to the taxpayer. Cabinet was rumoured to have been told it would cost up to A$500 million dollars, yet by January 2002, the costs had blown out to A$1.2 billion over a five year period.3

Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock has further stated: "The Pacific solution is an ongoing cost. If you are asking the question as to whether or not there are additional costs as time goes on associated with the management of the people who are detained of course there will be additional costs, but that doesn't mean there's been a blow out." Minister Ruddock further added: "There are ongoing expenses associated with the Pacific solution, and it'd be naive to believe we're going to stop feeding people and we're going to stop appropriate provision."3

General Legal Dodginess

Probably the biggest question is why was the Australian government looking to send refugees to small nations who either hadn't signed the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, or had serious reservations?

In the Pacific islands region, Convention signatories include Aotearoa/New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Papua New Guinea. The signature of France, the USA and the UK cover their colonies. Other Pacific countries cited as possible locations for detention camps, such as Palau and Kiribati have not signed the Convention.

Although PNG has signed the convention, "The Government of Papua New Guinea in accordance with article 42 paragraph 1 of the Convention makes a reservation with respect to the provisions contained in articles 17 (1), 21, 22 (1), 26, 31, 32 and 34 of the Convention and does not accept the obligations stipulated in these articles."4 Thus the Papua New Guinea Government does not accept obligations covering: Wage-earning employment (Art.17); Housing (Art.21); Public education (Art.22); Freedom of movement (Art.26); Refugees unlawfully in the country of refuge (Art.31); Expulsion (Art.32); and Naturalisation (Art.34).

There are also serious questions as to the legality of mandatory detention under both the Constitutions of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Article 5.1 of the Nauruan constitution states that "No person shall be deprived of his personal liberty, except as authorised by law in any of the following cases" - the cases listed in the Constitution, covering the spread of disease and criminal offences do not appear to cover the asylum seekers. In section 5.2, the constitution "to consult in the place in which he is detained a legal representative of his own choice".54 Indeed one Nauruan lawyer has had the temerity to ask: "Under what law are they held in a compound from which they are not permitted to leave except for medical and like reasons and then under guard?"5

Groups such has Oxfam have also outlined major implications for liability in cases of accidental death, appeal against the ruling of Australian officials or conflict between asylum seekers and security guards from a private contracting firm.

General Political Dodginess

"Is it not fair when Papua New Guinea receives 500 million kina from Australia, to give a hand?" - Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta
Given that the displacement of people is a key issue of globalisation, Australia is setting an extremely poor precedent for the rest of the West. As immigration becomes an election issue, the temptation for any populist political movement is to revert to policies of xenophobia rather than openness, and push refugees wherever else that they can. Modern nations have a responsibility, at the very least, to fairly process refugees.

In October 2001, UNHCR spokesperson Ellen Hansen commented: "On a number of occasions we've expressed reservations about these sorts of arrangements in the Asia-Pacific region because we do believe that when asylum seekers come to Australia, then primarily it is a state responsibility for Australia to ensure that they receive a fair and thorough examination of their claim. Ultimately protection of refugees is a state responsibility and a country like Australia which has a very sophisticated and well-developed system of refugee status determination is, we believe, the most appropriate process to be made available to these people."6


Endnotes

  1. 'New measures to strengthen border control', Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA) Fact Sheet No.71, 2 December 2001.
  2. 'Pacific detention policy on boat people will stay', The Age, 19 November 2001
  3. 'Pacific solution cost double Costello's vow', Sydney Morning Herald, 24 January 2002; '"Pacific solution" saved taxpayer from heftier bill for detainees: Ruddock', Sydney Morning Herald, 25 January 2002
  4. UN Treaties Database: UN Convention on the Status of Refugees: Papua New Guinea, p3
  5. The Visionary, No.11-01, 9 November 2001.
  6. UNHCR Guidelines on the Detention of Asylum Seekers, 26 February 1999.
  7. 'PNG: No one to process angry asylum-seekers', Asia Pacific program, ABC Radio, 25 October 2001.

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