Minimizing PNG and Nauru. John Menadue

Aug 13, 2013

Before I outline what I suggest we should do after the federal election let me first raise a few important background issues.

The Indo China program

In working with Malcolm Fraser and Ian Macphee I was actively involved in the Indochina refugee program under which Australia took 240,000 people, including family reunion. It was a successful humanitarian program which most Australians now look back on with pride. It also broke the back of White Australia but did not fully banish it. It still shows up to today in a de facto form, in hostility and demonization of asylum seekers.

There were several keys to that successful program.

  • Regional processing in which regional countries held 1.4 million people for processing.
  • Settlement countries such as US and Australia providing funding and speedily accepting those found to be refugees.
  • Boat arrivals in Australia were minimal. In the period 1976-77 to 1982-83, an average of 10 boats and 340 people arrived by boat each year.  The peak year was in 1977-78 when 43 boats and 1,423 people came
  • That program would not have been possible if we had the 50,000 boat arrivals that are projected presently next year in Australia.
  • There was bipartisan support
  • From that experience I have been a firm supporter of compliance/border protection. The Australian community will support a generous humanitarian/refugee intake provided it is orderly. The same approach is being taken by President Obama…an amnesty for 11 million Latinos in return for stepped up border protection
  • The present strident refugee advocates are not helping the cause. They weaken the case for an expanded refugee intake.   They prejudice multiculturalism and  send a message along with Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison that the Australian Government will and must give way

Agreement with Malaysia.

The rejection of the agreement with Malaysia by the High Court started the rot that we have today. That High Court decision may have been sound in law but it has had awful consequences for good policy. The agreement with Malaysia needed improvement but it did provide guarantees that Malaysia had never provided before. UNHCR was prepared to actively cooperate.. It would have restarted regional arrangements.  When the High Court rejected the Malaysian agreement in August 2011, Irregular maritime arrivals were then running at less than 300 per month.  The number of boat arrivals increased to 1,200 by May 2012. ’ They have been on a rising trend ever since. The Malaysian failure sent a very clear message. Boat arrivals would succeed. People arriving by boat have increased since the failure of the Malaysia agreement to an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people next year. (In March/June quarters 2012, boat arrivals totalled 4486.In March/June quarters 2013 they had risen to an estimated 14,000 and rising fast). The Government attempted to amend the Migration Act to correct the problems identified by the High Court but the Greens colluded with the Coalition to block the amending legislation. They bashed Malaysia at every opportunity over such issues as judicial canings but ignored for the moment the moat in our own eye, mandatory detention with suicides, self-harm, mental trauma, riots and burnings. The Greens must bear a heavy responsibility for the parlous situation we now find ourselves in. Their moral superiority has helped give us PNG/Nauru. Their conspicuous compassion is damaging the possibility of any sensible humanitarian and political outcome

Boat and air arrivals

For years there has been media and political preoccupation with boat arrivals with very little interest or attention to air arrivals who seek asylum. Air arrivals are presently running at about 8,000 p.a. They are mainly persons who arrive in Australia on visitor, working holiday or student visas and then seek refugee status. It is planned in advance. The biggest source for air arrivals seeking asylum is Southern China. About 40% of air arrivals receive refugee protection. They live in the community and can work. Boat arrivals are placed immediately in detention although an increasing number are now released into the community on bridging visas. About 90% of boat arrivals are found to be refugees. We have a remarkable fear about boat arrivals but apparently no concern about asylum seekers who come by air or the 50,000 illegals in the country who have overstayed their visas and disappeared into the woodwork with UK and US citizens high on the list.

The Pacific “solution”

The Howard Government’s Pacific/Nauru “solution” did work for a period. In the confusion after Tampa, people smugglers and asylum seekers did not know what might happen to them. The boats stopped. But that changed in the latter part of the Howard Gov. and in the early years of the Rudd Govt.  Of the 1637 on Nauru/Manus who were found to be refugees 96% finished up in Australia or NZ. The Gillard Government was warned that Nauru/Manus would not work a second time. It was reasonable to anticipate, on the basis of previous experience that even if asylum seekers were sent to Nauru after August 2012 they would end up in Australia.And this is what happened. Boat arrivals did not slow down or stop. That is why the Rudd Gov. decided that any person arriving in Aust without a visa in future would never be settled in Aust.

Another element of the Pacific solution was Temporary Protection Visas. But they failed with more boat arrivals coming after TPV’s were introduced. Unable to sponsor family, many women and children took to the boats. That is why when SIEVX sunk in 2002 with a loss of 363 lives, 288 were women and children

What can be done after September 7, particularly to minimise PNG and Nauru. 

  • Change the political narrative with a positive message about persons facing persecution and their contribution to Australia rather than the demonization and fear that has been engendered since John Howard’s days. It comes down to leadership across our community and not just politicians. Polls suggest that boat arrivals do not rate highly against such issues as health and education but is a hot button issue on its own that produces a very strong response
  • Bipartisanship between the major parties. Is it too much to hope for! It is so easy for unscrupulous people to promote fear of the foreigner, the outsider and the person who is different
  • Second-track dialogue – involve government officials, civil society, NGOs and refugee advocates in the dialogue process. A more constructive role by refugee advocates is essential
  • Processing of asylum seekers in Malaysia and Indonesia in cooperation with UNHCR. Hopefully the regional meeting organised by President Yudhoyono/PM Rudd for Aug.20 will advance this issue.  Progress has been made to restrict visa free entry into Indonesia and Malaysia. The key issue in any arrangement must be effective protection. This encompasses (a) people given a legal status while they are in a transit country, (b) the principle of non-refoulement (c) people have access to refugee determination process either within the legal jurisdiction of the state or by UNHCR and (d) treated with dignity. Unfortunately our performance on refugees in the region is that we are fair-weather friends, walking away when our interests are served
  • Alternative migration pathways.
    • Orderly departure arrangements with “source countries” such as we had with Vietnam from 1983 .We must pursue ODA’s with Sri Lanka, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In both Iraq and Afghanistan we will have to bear particular responsibilities for our involvement in the wars in those countries. The arrangements for orderly departure from Pakistan will probably have to be managed by UNHCR  Importantly.DIAC must anticipate future refugee Syria and Egypt
    • Permanent or temporary migration, e.g. Iranians on 457 visas. Recent Iranian boat arrivals are mainly single males, well-educated and resourceful. With a population explosion in Iran and the sanctions biting hard many want to leave. In the last 12 months the proportion boat arrivals from Iran has doubled from 16% to 33%.
    • Work rights for all bridging visa holders and a review of the ad hoc and confusing support arrangements for asylum seekers living in the community.
    • Progressively abolish mandatory detention. There are still 6,000 people in detention including 1000 children. There is no evidence whatsoever that mandatory detention deters
    • Progressively Increase refugee and humanitarian intake to 30,000 plus p.a. and cease deducting irregular arrivals from the total intake.
    • On PNG and Nauru, hopefully the deterrent works and boat arrivals will dramatically slow. If they don’t our overall refugee program will continue under a cloud. For those that do go to PNG and Nauru we will need to provide amongst other things, special skills and technical training for resettlement out of the region. If there is a legal challenge to the PNG/Nauru agreements the people smugglers will be given another lease of life
    • Children cannot be exempted or the boats will fill up with boys under 18 years of age. They are called “anchors” to bring out the rest of the family. Children need special guardianship arrangements but the Minister cannot be both guardian and gaoler.
    • There is no ‘solution’.  Desperate people will still try to cut corners. But we can better manage it. If the government is successful in substantially reducing the boat arrivals, more will attempt to come by air.


We need to think again about the assumption by so many that all asylum seekers entering Australia must be processed in Australia .What is important is not so much where the processing occurs but whether it is fair, humane and efficient.

In 1998 UNHCR at an Exxon meeting envisaged the possibility of transferring people between states for processing. It concluded…”as regards the return to a third country of an asylum seeker whose claim has yet to be determined from the territory of the country where the claim has been submitted ,including pursuant to bilateral or multilateral readmission agreements, it should be established that the third country will treat the asylum seeker(s) in accordance with international standards, will ensure effective protection against refoulement and  will provide the asylum seeker(s) with the possibility to seek and enjoy asylum”.

The keys are effective protection, consistent with the Refugee Convention, the treatment of people with dignity and efficiency in implementation. We are still a long way short of that with PNG/Nauru

Importantly we cannot manage these problems on our own.  Regional cooperation is essential, not to shift the burden but to share it.

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