Australia running out of countries to send its refugees

After abuse scandals, Australia is being forced to seek out new nations to take its unwanted asylum seekers.

Local men watch as the Australian navy ship HMAS Manoora carrying hundreds of refugees arrives at Nauru [Rick Rycroft/AP]

Australia is being forced to seek new countries to take its refugees after the Philippines said it won’t accept them.

Australia’s contentious policy of offshore detention of refugees was plunged into a fresh crisis last week when President Benigno Aquino rejected Australia’s proposal to permanently resettle people in the Philippines.

Canberra had approached Manila after a series of scandals involving allegations of rape, physical abuse, and mental cruelty against detainees held at Nauru and Manus Island were highlighted in the media and by advocacy groups. The government is increasingly under pressure to find a more humane solution.

But President Aquino dashed hopes of a deal, saying the Philippines does not have the “capacity at this point of time to afford permanent residency to these people”.

 Australia talks to the Philippines about refugee resettlement

Australia is fast running out of third-country options as it seeks to maintain its policy of offshore detention. A high court decision in 2011 means that, under current laws, Australia can only legally make deals for the processing and resettlement of refugees with countries that signed the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention.

In the Southeast Asia region, that does not leave many options; only Cambodia, East Timor and the Philippines are signatory countries. In the Pacific region, the small islands of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tuvalu and the Solomon islands are all signatories.

However, the alarming outcome of deals done with Nauru and Papua New Guinea means further agreements with the island nations are unlikely.

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Australia’s failed programme to resettle refugees in Cambodia has already cost 55 million Australian dollars (US$39m), but only four detainees have taken up the offer to relocate. Cambodia has now suggested they will not take any more refugees.

East Timor remains an unlikely option. A potential scheme to process refugees there was dismissed by the current government as a “farce” when it was in opposition, making any subsequent deal politically infeasible.

The Philippines, with its strong legislative framework and history of refugee resettlement, was considered the best option in the region.

But Renato Reyes, secretary-general of the social rights group Bayan, said Australia’s offer was poorly timed with a Philippine election in May.

“Reaching a deal with the Philippines in a politically charged environment before the election was always going to be tough,” Reyes said. “It’s campaign season and the politicians want to avoid any potentially divisive agreements, particularly deals that involve big sums of money.”

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The ongoing detention of more than 1,700 men, women and children on Nauru and Manus Island is an increasing policy dilemma for the government.

A former senior official at the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, who asked to remain anonymous because he still works with government agencies, told Al Jazeera the imprisonment of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island has been a disaster for the government.


Manus and Nauru were set up on a wing and a prayer, hoping that the scheme might just work. They were never meant to be long-term solutions. They were meant to give a short, sharp message to those travelling by boat – ‘you will never get a visa in Australia’.”

The scale of the problem is now apparent, he said. There are 33,000 refugees, both within Australia and offshore, most of whom have no rights to work and have limited access to healthcare. 

“It didn’t work,” he said of the offshore processing plan. “The government of Nauru was incredibly difficult to deal with.”

A Nauru spokesman told Al Jazeera: “The government of Nauru does not respond to anonymous and malicious allegations that are offensive to the Nauruan people, except to say they are totally false.”

Offshore refugees have been left to flounder with no viable long-term solution on offer. The average length of detention is now more than 400 days.

“These people are being used as message sticks to say, ‘you are not going to get a visa to Australia; we mean it’. In a perverse kind of way, it sends the message: ‘You don’t want to jump on a boat and get raped in Nauru,'” the former official said.

Peter Young is a former director of mental health services for the private contractor employed by the Department of Immigration. He’s the most senior official to publicly condemn the system from within. Young told Al Jazeera there were constant problems working on Nauru and Manus Island. 

“There were logistical difficulties, basic communications were a problem. Manus and Nauru are very harsh places. There was an agreed fiction that the places were being run by locals to deflect the blame. But they were being run by Australians. Australian staff controlled everything,” said Young.

RELATED: Australia asylum seekers left in limbo

The failed Nauru and Manus Island refugee schemes have put increased pressure on the government to find a long-term solution.

 Report criticises Australia’s Nauru prison

A deal with the Philippines could have allowed the government to salvage its tattered offshore processing plans without the need for a radical policy overhaul. As such, the Philippines is likely to be an increasing focus of diplomatic activity as Australia strives to make a deal.

Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is due in Manila in the coming weeks when Asian leaders attend a meeting of regional leaders.

According to Reyes: “The Philippines government may open up if the price is right – this is sometimes how the Philippines government works.”

It’s a sentiment shared by the former immigration official.

“Every one of these deals was difficult at the beginning,” he said. If a deal can’t be found, there will be “officials scouring the globe looking for other solutions. Money is not a problem when it comes to this policy”.

Source: Al Jazeera