‘Papua New Guinea Solution’ is no solution


From mandatory detention to mandatory exclusion – Australia abolishes the right to seek asylum.

The Manus ‘Solution’

On July 19, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced the ‘Regional Settlement Arrangement’ between Australia and Papua New Guinea. This means that any asylum seeker attempting to enter Australia by boat will be transported to Papua New Guinea and banned from ever settling in Australia, effectively abolishing the right to seek asylum. In Papua New Guinea, the asylum seekers will be processed under local law and then, if granted refugee status, be allowed to remain there. Those not found to be genuine refugees will be detained in Papua New Guinea until another country takes them, or they ‘volunteer’ to return to their home country – if they have one.

In 1992, the Labor government introduced mandatory detention – now in 2013 they have introduced mandatory exclusion.

The pact came only days after a legal challenge by the PNG leader of the opposition, Belden Namah, was overturned by the PNG Supreme Court. Namah's challenge was against the legality of detaining people seeking asylum. His argument was that “the PNG Constitution protects individuals against detention without charge, and that asylum seekers being held [on Manus] have not been charged with any crime.” The case was dismissed because of an alleged legal technicality. Namah said he will place the challenge again.

Meanwhile, the first people to be sent to PNG have arrived on Christmas Island. The boat was taken into custody hours after the pact between Rudd and PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill was signed. The 81 people on board – all Iranian, including families – are currently being held on Christmas Island. Immigration Minister Tony Burke said it would take a couple of weeks before they would be sent to Manus.

Located off the north coast, Manus is the fifth largest island in Papua New Guinea with an area of 2,100 km², it measures around 100 km × 30 km (roughly the dimensions of the Coromandel Peninsula). The Manus detention centre was first established in 2001, and the last refugee was released in 2004 (after spending ten months as the sole detainee) before it was officially closed in 2007. An agreement was signed in 2011 to re-open it, however it was not until after the re-introduction of the Pacific Solution in August 2012 that it was used again. The first refugees were taken there in November last year and some were soon evacuated because of lack of medical facilities. In June 2013, the Australian government stated that children under the age of seven and pregnant women cannot stay there due to the malarial risks and issues with medication for these particularly vulnerable groups. On June 20 – as if to mark World Refugee Day – 22 children and their families were moved out of the Manus Island detention facility. By the first week of July supposedly all children had been evacuated.

The children and families may have been evacuated to divert attention from a damning United Nations report released also in July. In the report, the UN High Commissioner For Refugees says that conditions on Manus are harsh and aspects of the centre are inconsistent with international human rights. The report also states that “current arrangements still do not meet international protection standards for the reception and treatment of asylum-seekers.”

When the centre was re-opened last year, a joint Papua New Guinea – Australian committee was set up to oversee the centre and ensure that the people detained there were fairly treated. The committee has yet to meet. Processing of asylum requests has not begun since the first people were detained on Manus last year.

The centre is currently set to hold 300 people. By January 2014, it will have been expanded to hold 600 people. Within the next two years, it is planned to increase its capacity to 3,000. One classroom will be built. Even with that increase, it is unclear how the large number of refugees currently fleeing towards Australia could possibly be held there.

Gillard’s problem

Rudd’s announcement shouldn’t come as a surprise. Elections are coming up in Australia in September and Rudd has just last month ousted Julia Gillard, allegedly because she was seen knitting in public. While that seems like a plausible explanation in a country dominated by a white male culture, it is not the real reason Gillard had to go.

The reason is more likely the fact that, despite Gillard’s efforts, the number of refugees heading for Australia has not declined. Gillard re-introduced the so called Pacific Solution where asylum seekers are held in indefinite detention on Nauru and Manus Island before eventually being settled in Australia, but numbers still went up. In 2012, a total of 17,000 refugees arrived in or were intercepted on their way to Australia, while this figure for the first six months of this year is 15,000 already.

Asylum seekers and their treatment has been a highly politicised issue in Australia for a long time. When in 2001 – another election year – the container ship MV Tampa picked up a group of 438 shipwrecked refugees and headed for Christmas Island with them, all hell broke loose. The Australian government refused permission for the Tampa to dock and threatened to prosecute the captain who was only doing what international maritime regulations prescribe in such an event – rescue the drowning people and take them to the nearest port.

A stand-off lasting several days ensued during which the Australian defence minister Peter Reid publicly lied that the refugee boat had not been sinking but rather the refugees had deliberately thrown their children overboard. The result was that the Howard government changed the law to retrospectively legalise the navy’s actions and to excise Christmas Island (meaning that it is not considered part of Australia for the purpose of migration). Eventually, most of the refugees ended up in Nauru and some 130 were taken to New Zealand.

Since then it has been all downhill. The Tampa affair resulted in the introduction of the Pacific Solution, which was in place until 2007, when it was cancelled by the newly elected Labor government under Kevin Rudd. Asylum seekers were from then on mostly processed on Christmas Island. In 2010, Julia Gillard (after having removed Rudd) briefly touted the ‘regional protection framework’, which included building offshore detention centres in places such as East Timor with the involvement of New Zealand. A year later, Gillard signed the ‘people-swap agreement’ with Malaysia, under which Malaysia agreed to process some asylum seekers caught on their way to Australia, and Australia would take a number of UN refugees from Malaysia in return. However, the Australian courts overturned this agreement and in 2012, the Gillard government re-introduced the Pacific Solution, but boat arrivals did not decline.

And that was Juila Gillard’s problem which enabled a hard-nosed Kevin Rudd to take over. It was entirely predictable that Rudd would come up with drastic new measures to reduce boat arrivals and his chances of winning the upcoming election hinges on the ‘success’ of the new ‘no chance by boat’ policy.

The really scary bit is that Rudd’s opponent Tony Abott will have to top this in order to win. His party has already announced that “of course you need to go the extra distance and turn boats back where it is safe to do so.”

Rudd’s contradictions

Rudd’s new plan is full of contradictions. It goes something like this: asylum seekers want to come to Australia. Currently, the conditions of indefinite detention on Manus and Nauru are not a sufficient deterrent because 90% of them are eventually found to be genuine refugees and are settled in Australia. Once they know that they will never make it to Australia, they will stop coming in their shonky little boats and will no longer remind the Australian public of wars and famines around the world.

This cynical logic is based on the assumption that those caught on the way to Australia have made a deliberate choice to go to Australia and not anywhere else. In Rudd’s Christian mind this is probably because Australia is ‘god’s own’, whereas PNG is a desperately poor country that can’t possibly cope with the influx of thousands of refugees each month. But this is where Rudd’s logic falls apart, because if his plan works, there won’t be thousands of refugees arriving there. Rudd knows that and that is why – when announcing the deal in a press conference – he said that “refugees can live safely and in prosperity in Papua New Guinea”. If that is correct, how can being taken there be a deterrent?

The claim that one can “live safely and in prosperity in Papua New Guinea” also contradicts Rudd’s own government officials who have recently issued a travel warning for PNG. It lists risks as including: high levels of crime, dangers of violent clashes, ethnic disputes, carjacking, sexual assault, endemic levels of cholera, and high levels of HIV. UNICEF states that “Children in Papua New Guinea remain some of the most vulnerable children in the world.”

Of course, Rudd is well aware of the conditions in PNG, and that is why he contradicts his own statements when he says that “people smugglers” will be raising “nothing but false hopes” when they promise refugees to take them to safety.

He also gets tangled up with the equally bizarre logic of the ‘no advantage’ policy that was in place until last week. Under this regime, introduced by Gillard in August 2012, people who allegedly “jump the queue” (by applying for asylum in Australia, instead of waiting for their ‘orderly’ resettlement in a UN refugee camp somewhere else), were held in detention for as long as their ‘orderly’ resettlement would have taken. This “myth of the queue jumper” has been widely condemned by people familiar with the reality of UN camps. Now Rudd admits that “these refugees are people who have languished in UN camps around the world for years and in some case for more than a decade,” but still insists that this is the “normal UNHCR process” that people should go through.

The reality is that refugees who flee their country do so because they fear for their lives, not because they know much about life in Australia. Survivors of ship wrecks off the Australian coast often state that they had no idea where the journey would go until they boarded the ship. Not allowing these people to settle in Australia and instead settling them in PNG is not going to change anything. People are not going to stop risking their lives making the journey into the unknown just because the destination is a different unknown.

The so-called PNG solution is certainly no solution – not for PNG, not for the asylum seekers and maybe not even for Kevin Rudd. The boats are not going to stop coming until the wars, the genocides and the famines that drive people to desperation have stopped.


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