Australia is drawing a line under a controversial episode in its harsh refugee deterrence policy at the end of the year. By then, the sending of boat migrants to Papua New Guinea is to end, Interior Minister Karen Andrews announced Wednesday. Contracts with the neighboring country expired on Dec. 31 and would not be renewed, a statement from the minister said. However, Andrews also made clear that this was not the end of Australia's "strong border security policy." So-called offshore processing in the island nation of Nauru will continue, she said: "Anyone who tries to come to Australia illegally by boat will be sent back or brought to Nauru."
Refugees still housed in Papua New Guinea will then be able to decide whether to go to Nauru voluntarily, stay in Papua New Guinea to become residents, or wait there for a third country to take them in. Currently, about 124 migrants are said to remain in the Pacific island nation, most of whom had been taken there by Australian authorities shortly after the agreement began in July 2013. At the time, the government in Canberra had decided to adopt a particularly tough deterrence policy toward asylum seekers due to an increasing number of boat people landing on Australian shores.
Since then, it has been said that no one who arrives on Australian territory this way should ever be given the chance to seek asylum in Australia. The government has therefore set up two camps for the refugees outside Australia, one in Nauru and one on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. In the meantime, up to 1353 refugees were accommodated on Manus alone. Most of them have since been resettled in third countries. From the beginning, there was criticism not only of the arrangement, which was questionable under international law, but also of the conditions under which the people had to live in the camps.
Human rights organizations particularly condemned the conditions in the camp in Papua New Guinea, where there had been violence, abuse, mental illness and suicide attempts. Finally, Papua New Guinea's highest court had also ruled that it was against the constitution to detain the refugees in the camp. As a result, they had been moved to semi-open shelters, first on Manus and eventually in the capital Port Moresby. The independent Australian Human Rights Commission now criticized on Wednesday, among other things, that Australia was shirking its responsibility for the refugees by ending the contracts.
While the human rights organization Amnesty International welcomed the end of the agreement as a "step in the right direction," it said that the continuation of accommodation in Nauru would mean that many refugees would continue to suffer. However, the continuation of accommodation in Nauru means that many of the refugees, who have already been living under a state of uncertainty for eight years, will have to continue to suffer. The organization called on Canberra to finally accept New Zealand's offer to host the refugees. Minister Andrews, on the other hand, referred in an interview only to the agreement with the United States to accept 1250 refugees, under which there was still room for about 250 people.
Image by Gerd Altmann