The Nauru government has announced that the remaining 600 asylum seekers in the island’s immigration detention centre will be processed over the next week. This comes after a delay of two years and remarkably slow processing. Why this welcome change? What is afoot?
We know that the Australian government is engaged in bilateral negotiations with several regional countries in trying to relocate asylum seekers. In this context I have seen an unconfirmed report that the Australian government is in discussions with the Philippines government to take asylum seekers from Nauru. If this speculation is confirmed, much will depend on what is negotiated. But an improved outcome could be in prospect.
There are several issues to be kept in mind. First, the detention centres in Manus and particularly, Nauru, are unsustainable. The government and government officials know this. Detainees particularly on Nauru are not safe and the Australian government and its contractors have failed to protect the poor souls in our detention centres. Second, an alternative must be found that safeguards the rights of detainees. Third, any change must not give people smugglers even a hint that they can get back into business. With a new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, the people smugglers will be looking very carefully for any sign that they could sell their services again to vulnerable and desperate people.
If the speculation about the Philippines is confirmed, and depending on the package negotiated, this could be a welcome change. The Philippines is the only Refugee Convention signatory country in our region with a reasonable track record in the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. The other signatory countries are Papua New Guinea, Nauru and Cambodia. The Philippines has an Emergency Transit Facility which was established through a Memorandum of Understanding between UNHCR and the Philippines government. The Philippines have consistently acted responsibly in relation to refugees. For example they gave local integration to all Vietnamese after the end of the Indochina program. It was the only country in the region to do so. The Philippines helped with the Oceanic Viking. They recently offered to assist with the Rohingya people.
But there are many unanswered questions. Is permanent settlement being discussed and what has Australia agreed to? It is unlikely that the Philippines would agree to forced removal as they are a Refugee Convention signatory country.
Importantly, if these discussions with the Philippines are afoot, we should avoid pointing a finger at the Philippines in the way that we did with an earlier proposal with Malaysia. The Malaysian government was severely criticised by many for its treatment of refugees even though we have a very blemished record ourselves.
The important issue to keep top and centre is the plight of asylum seekers in Manus, and particularly Nauru, rather than seeking to score domestic political points.
I will not be surprised if it is confirmed that the Australian government might be in negotiations with the Philippines government. But a lot will depend on the package. Keep tuned.