Late last month, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews and Nauru’s president, Lionel Angemia, quietly announced that they had signed a new agreement to establish a “permanent form” of offshore processing for asylum seekers in the Pacific Islands. have done.
The text of the new agreement has not been made public. This is not surprising.
All publicly available information indicates that Australia’s offshore processing strategy is an ongoing human right – not to mention a financial disaster.
The intentional opacity is intended to make it difficult to hold the government accountable for these human and other costs. This is, of course, all the more reason to subject the new deal with Nauru to intense scrutiny.
20 years in the making of policies
To fully understand the New Deal – and its implications – it is necessary to briefly describe its 20-year history.
In late August 2001, the Howard government refused to allow asylum seekers rescued at sea by a Tampa freighter to land on Australian soil. This initiated policy-making and led to the Pacific Solutions Mark I.
The governments of Nauru and Papua New Guinea were persuaded to enter into agreements that detain people attempting to reach Australia by boat to be detained at facilities in their territory while Australians over their protection claims. The authorities had considered.
By the 2007 election, boat arrivals in Australia had dropped significantly.
In February 2008, the newly elected Labor government closed facilities in Nauru and PNG. Within a year, boat arrivals increased dramatically, forcing the government to reconsider its policy.
After a few false starts, it signed new deals with Nauru and PNG in late 2012. An expert panel had described the new arrangements as “necessary circuit breakers for the current surge in irregular migration in Australia”.
It was the Pacific Solution Mark II. Unlike the first iteration, it provides for boat arrivals to Nauru and PNG to consider security claims under the laws and procedures of the host country.
In addition, processing facilities were considered by the host countries, although in reality, the Australian government outsourced it to private companies.
Despite the new arrangement, the arrival of boats continued. And on 19 July 2013, the Rudd government took a stern stance, declaring that any boat arriving after that date “will have no chance of settling in Australia as refugees”.
New drastic changes to the system
1,056 persons transferred to Nauru or PNG before July 19, 2013 were brought to Australia for processing.
PNG agreed that asylum seekers who arrived after this date could resettle there if they were recognized as refugees.
Nauru made a more explicit commitment and has thus far granted 20-year visas only to those it identifies as refugees.
The coalition won the September 2013 federal election and implemented the military-led Operation Sovereign Borders policy. This includes returning boat arrivals to transit countries (such as Indonesia), or their countries of origin.
The cumulative number of interceptions since then stands at 38 boats carrying 873 people. The most recent blocking happened in January 2020.
It should be noted that these figures do not include the large number of interceptions made at the request of Australia by transit countries and countries of origin.
This means that the mere existence of an offshore processing system – even in a more stringent form after July 2013 – hasn’t stopped people from attempting to reach Australia by boat.
Efforts rather continue, but interception activities from Australia and other countries have prevented them from succeeding.
No new asylum seekers in Nauru or PNG since 2014
Australia recognizes that it has obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees – and other human rights treaties – to avoid returning people to places where they are at risk of serious harm.
As a result, on-water screening interviews are conducted for the purpose of identifying people intercepted at sea. Prima facie protection claims.
Those individuals should be taken to Nauru or PNG instead of being returned or handed back. In this regard, of the 873 people intercepted since 2013, only two have passed these screenings: both in 2014.
This means that no asylum seekers have been moved to Nauru or PNG since 2014. Since then, Australia has spent years trying to find resettlement options in third countries for refugees recognized in Cambodia and the US, such as Nauru and PNG.
As of 30 April, 131 asylum seekers were still in PNG and 109 were in Nauru.
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A boon for the Nauruan government
Australia has spent billions on the Pacific Solution Mark II, with no end in sight.
As well as underwriting all infrastructure and operating costs of the processing facilities, Australia made it worthwhile for Nauru and PNG to participate in the arrangements.
For one thing, it promised to ensure spillover benefits for local economies, for example by requiring contractors to hire local workers. In fact, in 2019-2020, the processing facility in Nauru employed 15% of the country’s entire workforce.
And from the very beginning, Nauru has required every transferee to hold a regional processing center visa. This is a temporary visa that must be renewed every three months by the Australian government.
The visa fee is A$3,000 each time, so it is A$12,000 per transferee per year that Australia needs to pay to the Nauruan government.
Where a transferee is found to be a person in need of protection, that visa is automatically converted into a temporary settlement visa, which must be renewed every six months. The temporary settlement visa fee is A$3,000 per month – again paid by the Australian Government.
In 2019-20, direct and indirect revenue from the processing facility made up 58% of the total Nauruan government revenue. It is no surprise that Nauru is on board with providing a “permanent form” of offshore processing for Australia.
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‘Not to use it, but to be ready to use it’
In 2016, the PNG Supreme Court ruled the detention of asylum seekers in an offshore processing facility unconstitutional. Australia and PNG agreed to close the PNG facility in late 2017 and residents were moved to alternative housing. Australia is underwriting the cost.
However, Australia decided to maintain a processing facility in Nauru. Senator Jim Molan asked Home Affairs Secretary Michael Pezzulo about this in Senate projections in February 2018:
So it would be more appropriate to say that we are not maintaining Nauru as an offshore processing center; We are maintaining a relationship with the Government of Nauru.
As you may well remember, the whole purpose is not to actually use those features. But, as with all odds, you must have assets that are reliable so that you can prevent future incidents. So the whole point of this is not to actually use it but to be ready to use it.
We thus end up with a new deal with the Government of Nauru for a “permanent” – that is, maintained indefinitely – offshore processing capacity, at great cost to Australians.
Read more: Can the Biden administration pressure Australia to adopt more humanitarian refugee policies?
Very little has been made public about this new arrangement. We know that in December 2020, the incoming immigration minister, Alex Hawke, was told that the government was making “a major purchase” for “permanent capacity services”.
We also know that a budget of $731.2 million has been appropriated for field processing in 2021-22.
Of this, $187 million is for service provider fees and host government costs in PNG. Almost all of the remainder go to Nauru, ensuring that, beyond hosting its current population of 109 transferees, it is “ready to receive new arrivals”.