As was largely predicted in policy circles, Kevin Rudd has announced a new agreement with the Government of Papua New Guinea regarding asylum seekers. From today, any irregular maritime arrival seeking asylum will be resettled in Papua New Guinea instead of Australia.
Commentators from both sides of the political divide have done an excellent job of polarising the debate. Over the next 48 hours, expect to see a raft of articles published which criticise the Government for deciding to implement some strategy at odds with the author’s preferred option. Partisan conservatives will say the measures are just window dressing and won’t work because John Howard’s scheme involved temporary protection visas, and the usual groups will say that the only solution is no solution because there isn’t a solution and nothing to be solved, &c., &c.
Which is a shame because this policy is interesting and should be analysed thoroughly.
As we don’t seem to have copies of the agreement in the public domain, we are rather limited on what we can discuss. What we do have is some fairly definite statements: ‘no asylum seeker arriving by boat will be settled in Australia.’
So that should compel us to ask about exceptional circumstances. Australia is much better placed than its neighbours (excluding New Zealand) to meet the needs of particularly difficult cases of refugee resettlement: particularly those that involve serious trauma, disability, and other health needs. If a person presents to Australia by boat and they are found to be a refugee, it would seem inconsistent with our expectations of government if they were not resettled in Australia. Not only would it increase the burden on regional partners, it just seems unnaturally cruel.
But they need not have been found to be a refugee. If an asylum seeker presents with particular health needs, would we depart from our current practice of having them treated in Australian hospitals?
Today’s announcement also seems to exacerbate an already difficult problem in humanitarian protection: stateless people. Stateless people are not refugees according to the Refugees Convention and, thus, don’t have a claim to a resettlement. Would we expect Papua New Guinea to house stateless persons indefinitely? Are they covered by the agreement? Rudd suggested that the agreement has provisions for the removal of persons, but it’s often not possible to remove stateless people.
Further, Australia’s humanitarian program extends further than just the Refugees Convention. Is the PNG resettlement agreement just for ‘Convention-refugees’, or would it include complementary protection? If we are trying to go for a gold class standard in regional protection, it seems very odd (and sad) that we aren’t discussing complementary protection as part of this program.
The interaction of the new agreement with the current situation in Indonesia and Malaysia creates a further puzzle. Would a person need to depart to Australia in order to be processed under the PNG agreement? Does it create an incentive to travel to Indonesia but not to travel further? What would be the effect of Indonesia becoming a party to the arrangement such that Australia agreed not to resettle people from a set date who arrived in Indonesia? How far back up the chain will this apply?
It’s clear that this style of arrangement will be extended across the region: if you take the last step in the journey towards Australia, you will be resettled in the region rather than in Australia. This seems like a perverse interpretation of the Regional Cooperation Framework where people who present in the region will be processed equally, regardless of which part of the pipeline they’re detected. We now have a group which will be treated ‘less than’: those who were detected in SIEVs can be settled in the region but not in Australia.
From my personal perspective, I’m pleased to see the Government trying to show good faith with regional partners when it comes to this issue. Rightly or wrongly, a large percentage of the population has a problem with irregular maritime arrivals and both major parties have shown a willingness to appease that section of the population. Where the Government appears to be failing is in its engagement with the other large cohort: people from the left who want a laissez-faire system that appeals to their ethical intuitions. If I’d been running the show and had this agreement forced upon me to sell, I’d have matched it with a commitment to increasing the number of placements under our resettlement program. Sure, this is a segment of the population who will never, ever be happy with anything, but it could at least dampen the ferocity of the complaints.
- You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house… How not to write about #asylumseeker policy #auspol (onlythesangfroid.wordpress.com)
- Australia to Send Boat People to Developing Nations (thejakartaglobe.com)
- Australia sending new migrants to Papua New Guinea (star-telegram.com)
- PNG, Australia do deal on asylum seekers (news.smh.com.au)
- No more boatpeople to be resettled in Australia: PM Rudd (channelnewsasia.com)