Editorial: What is the Howard Government Up to with the Pacific Solution Mark 2?


What is the policy objective of the Howard government in extending the Pacific Solution to all asylum seekers arriving on Australian territory by boat?

After the first wave of 'boatpeople' from Afghanistan and Iraq ceased, the Australian government renewed the contracts of the immigration processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island, and proceeded to construct a new centre on Christmas Island .

The boats stopped coming in part because there was no longer a ready market for the people smugglers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in part because the Indonesian government had put in place measures funded by the Australian government to stop asylum seekers making secondary movements from Indonesia to Australia . The justification for the long term detention of unvisaed asylum seekers on the Australian mainland and in the Pacific centres was the need to deter people from engaging people smugglers in their desire to seek a migration outcome by means of secondary movement once they had fled their country of persecution.

The Australian government seems to have taken the arrival of one boatload of Papuans in direct flight from Papua as the trigger for extending the Pacific solution to all boat arrivals.

Though no longer Minister for Immigration, Phillip Ruddock sits on the Cabinet's National Security Committee and speaks for the portfolio whenever the minister, ,Amanda Vanstone, is indisposed. It fell to Ruddock to defend the proposed extension of the Pacific solution in the wake of criticism by the UNHCR. Ruddock claims that in its implementation of the Pacific Solution Mark 2, the Australian government "will meet its international refugee protection obligations."

The UNHCR Geneva has however said that the Australian policy "would be an unfortunate precedent, being for the first time, to our knowledge, that a country with a fully functioning and credible asylum system, in the absence of anything approximating a mass influx, decides to transfer elsewhere the responsibility to handle claims made actually on the territory of the state."

When Minister for Immigration, Ruddock often emphasised that the international system was not working efficiently, with first world countries spending inordinate amounts of money on border protection and next to nothing on supporting UNHCR and host governments in the neediest refugee camps. He thought that regional holding and processing centres could help streamline the management of national border issues, freeing funds for channelling to the neediest refugees. Ruddock seemed to assume that the UNHCR did not have the political muscle to lead co-operative international experiments - and so it was only appropriate that Australia experiment with its own unique problems and possibilities. At first, Ruddock sounded out Indonesia for the lease of an Indonesian island or two for the location of regional holding and processing centres. The Indonesians were unsurprisingly not interested in surrendering their real estate for such purposes.

The next idea was the Pacific solution using someone else's islands once the asylum seekers had reached Australian territory. If the Pacific solution could be made to work, it could potentially provide a model for other countries. All that was needed was a compliant, indigent island neighbour.

The Australian government is cogniscent of the fact that the Pacific solution is premised on smoke and mirrors. Given that 95% of recognised refugees have eventually ended up in Australia or New Zealand, despite external processing. By August 2004, 60% of the 905 recognised refugees were settled in Australia . This equated to 531 resettled in Australia and 335 in New Zealand, with only 40 resettled in other countries. By November 2004 when the remaining Iraqi caseload was reprocessed, all newly recognised refugees were settled in Australia .

Phillip Ruddock and his fellow members of John Howard's National Security Committee know that there are no other third countries which will take our small , at present piecemeal, caseloads of any Papuans who are likely to flee directly to Australia . If the international community (other than New Zealand ) took only 40 when we had thousands of secondary movers, it can be inferred that they will not take any when we have only a handful of direct fleers. New Zealand will not countenance this either - and nor should they.

So what is the Howard government hoping to achieve? In relation to Papua, the government has a compound fear: the haemorrhaging of Papua, with the consequence that many boatloads may descend on Australia . The successful refugees may then use Australia as a political base for their independence activities, thereby making Australia a magnet for further Papuan flight to Australia .

If there were a haemorrhage, the Pacific solution Mark 2 would be a very ineffective bandaid. The prospect of long term processing in the Pacific may put a brake on the exodus, and reduce the prospect of Papuans boarding boats in the immediate expectation of making it to Australia to further their political campaign. They may think it better on balance to stay at home or simply to flee across the PNG border which they can do less perilously and more successfully, especially if Australia increases its naval patrols. The Papuans and the Australian public have been left in the dark about how the naval patrols will conduct themselves when intercepting asylum seekers in direct flight rather than secondary movers. During Operation Relex, the justification for our navy shooting across the bows of overloaded fishing boats was that the secondary movers on board could return to Indonesia where they could get protection. This is not a possibility for Papuans fleeing Indonesian persecution.

In PNG, Papuan refugees would more readily find protection from persecution, but they would not have the opportunity to use their flight as the focus for international political separatist activity. Publicity is of course advantageous to a political campaign for independence. Our government thinks the long planned extension of the Pacific solution is worth a try now, accepting that any Papuans who do come our way and get processed in the Pacific will still end up in Australia. In the meantime, most Papuan asylum seekers, as previously, will decide not to come our way but will go to PNG instead, publicity and consciousness-raising advantages of the longer trek notwithstanding. The government thinks it has nothing to lose in giving the extended Pacific solution a try now, given that they were poised to extend it once a new wave of secondary movers came from Indonesia anyway. With control of the Senate the government can now legislate the extension of the Pacific solution Mark 2 at its whim.

In relation to any future wave of secondary movers from Indonesia , Ruddock and his colleagues know that they will ultimately have to accept any proven refugees, and they will seek once again the co-operation of New Zealand with the resettlement. In the meantime, they hope that a comprehensive Pacific solution will, with smoke and mirrors, help deter secondary movement and people smuggling. It will be a minor deterrent when compared with the measures and changed situations at source which have dried up the people smuggling market, as well as the well financed disruption activities and protocols now in place in Indonesia , and the comprehensive naval patrols on the high seas. Bill Farmer, who had been Ruddock's departmental head is now our ambassador in Jakarta . He is well placed to supervise the protocols in Java precluding secondary movement.

The extended Pacific solution does not provide a workable or principled alternative for many other governments whose publics more readily appreciate mutual international obligations. If every country signed the Refugee Convention and then adopted the Pacific Solution Mark 2, there would be nowhere in the world for asylum seekers to land. The Convention would be dead in the water. Ruddock has now lost sight of providing workable models for other countries. Australia is to go it alone with smoke and mirrors the best it can muster in the way of a policy solution. If UNHCR maintains its criticisms, it is unlikely to receive any additional funds from the government which set out to reform the international system for the processing of asylum claims so that all refugees might be given a fair go..

Fr Frank Brennan SJ is an adjunct fellow in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the ANU, professor of law in the Institute of Legal Studies at the Australian Catholic University, and professor of human rights and social justice at the University of Notre Dame Australia.