Issues involving countries as far afield as Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Costa Rica still need resolution
By Luke Hunt
Closure for Australia and its controversial Pacific Island refugee camps is finally looming with teams of contractors deployed by the United States kick-starting the resettlement programs amid lingering doubts over hundreds of asylum seekers who could be left behind.
A team from the Bangkok-based Resettlement Support Centre East Asia have wrapped-up initial interviews on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, a month-long process which initiated the first stages in the resettlement of up to 1,250 refugees.
Another two teams from the Department of Homeland Security in the US have also arrived on Nauru and Manus to follow-up on those interviews and begin the “extreme vetting” stage of resettlement.
About 2,400 people have been denied entry to Australia after arriving illegally off its north coast since mid-2013. About 1,600 have been judged as refugees and were expected to find new homes in the US assuming they pass the vetting procedure.
That would enable closure of the Manus Island immigration detention centre by the end of this year, according to Paul Douglas, assistant secretary with the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Nauru will remain open to handle any future arrivals.
Others are hoping resettlement could begin inside the next two months.
Outstanding Resettlement Issues
However, the biggest issues confronting governments in all three countries is what to with those refugees who do not qualify under American vetting procedures or have been refused refugee status and are facing deportation from Nauru and PNG. Australia is not an option.
These issues are plagued by niggling problems ranging from travel documents and safety guarantees to local politics and how far to extend the welcome mat.
“The solution, as with the original problems, rests on parochial political considerations and the balance of domestic acceptance in both Australia and any country where the detained asylum seekers may finally find a haven,” said Gavin Greenwood, a regional security analyst with Hong Kong-based Allan & Associates.
Sri Lankans who fail to qualify for refugee status are being told to go home.
Most are Tamils who fled their homeland during a nasty, 26-year civil war, which ended in 2009.
Despite reassurances from Colombo that all is okay, hundreds of Tamil asylum seekers in the Pacific island camps insist old dangers remain and are refusing to leave. It’s a similar story in south-east India where thousands of Tamils have grown-up stateless.
No Sri Lankan asylum seeker has reached Australia by boat since 2013 and least 60 will have their requests for refugee status shortly assessed. So far none have been rejected.
During a recent visit to Australia, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said asylum seekers held in the Australian-funded camps, who might find a home in the US, were always free to return to their native land without fear of persecution.
His reassurances were issued after meeting with his counterpart Malcolm Turnbull and highlighted the difficulties involved in finding alternative countries to live in for so many people from so many different ethnic backgrounds, particularly among the rejected.
Sixty asylum seekers are facing deportation. Most are from Iran while others are from Iraq, Nepal, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Bangladesh, India and Vietnam.
Vietnamese asylum seekers plying the waters off Indonesia have been rounded-up and taken back where some say they have been persecuted by the communist authorities.
There have also been reports that Bangladeshi and Nepalese asylum seekers on Manus Island were being offered up to $25,000 to return to their country of origin, coupled with warnings that they risk deportation if they refuse.
Two more refugees being held on Nauru have volunteered to move to Cambodia where another four had taken up residency in mid-2015, with mixed success, as part of a US$42 million resettlement deal between Australia and Phnom Penh.
Efforts to send more have been stymied by Cambodia’s reputation as a struggling, least developed country and of the original four to land here, two have since returned to their home countries.
A Deal with Costa Rica
Recent revelations by Australia’s Immigration Minister Peter Dutton that Australia’s deal with the US, struck with the previous Obama administration, would hinge on the relocation of refugees in Costa Rica has reshaped the outlook.
Both governments had said there was no link between the US accepting refugees from Pacific island camps and a separate agreement with Washington that would result in Australian taking refugees from Central America.
“What appeared a smart legal solution – a local version of the sophistry used to justify the U.S. government’s use of its Guantanamo Bay naval base as an extra territorial entity to hold suspected Islamist opponents – has led to legal domestic and overseas legal challenges to the policy and often fanciful efforts to find solutions to this seemingly intractable problem,” Greenwood said.
Both governments had said there was no link between the US accepting refugees from Pacific island camps and a separate agreement with Washington that would result in Australian taking refugees from Central America currently being housed in camps in Costa Rica.
A tough stand on immigration by recently elected US President Donald Trump had cast doubts over the Pacific Islands deal, which were largely assuaged following a swift round of talks between the two countries including their respective leaders.
Nevertheless Dutton was insistent.
“We wouldn’t take anyone until we had assurances that people were going to go off Nauru and Manus,” Dutton recently told Australia media, adding most refugees from Nauru and PNG would be resettled within the US within “the next couple of months”.
Just in case the deal does fall over, the Green Party in New Zealand is the latest political outfit across the Tasman Sea to urge Prime Minister Bill English to offer a home for refugees in the unlikely event of the US deal falling over.
It’s an improbable, even mischievous, suggestion as this would potentially allow the refugees to enter Australia through New Zealand and undermine Australia’s tough stance on asylum seekers arriving by boat.
“A recent repeated offer by New Zealand to take 150 asylum seekers was declined on the grounds it would only serve as ‘marketing tool’ for people smugglers, the ostensible target of the government’s tough anti-asylum-seeker policy,” Greenwood said.
People smugglers have forced governments to re-write the rules on asylum seekers arriving by boat on a multilateral level, after the numbers of people being illegally shipped to Australia rose from just 25 in the 2007/08 financial year to more than 5,000 in 2009/10.
Numbers making the often dangerous voyage, that did result in many lives lost at sea, have since fallen to almost zero justifying the tough and often criticised stance but final closure will remain elusive until homes can found for those who qualify as refugees and passage back for those who don’t.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt