Kevin Rudd has moved to neutralise the asylum seeker issue by concluding a “Regional Resettlement Agreement” with the Papua New Guinea government to resettle all maritime arrivals assessed as genuine refugees in Papua New Guinea.
They will also be relocated to PNG while they are being assessed, at an expanded facility at Manus Island and at new facilities. Under the Rudd policy, there will be no chance for anyone who arrives by boat henceforth to be resettled in Australia.
The Prime Minister has also flagged with the United Nations that he would be convening an international process involving what he called “transit countries” to address asylum seeker flows under the UN Refugee Convention, and indicated Australia would look to increase its humanitarian intake in the long-term.
The agreement comes with a significant but as yet unspecified increase in aid to Papua New Guinea, particularly in health and education. However, Rudd claims the overall package will be revenue neutral.
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Immigration Minister Tony Burke stated that women and children would not be transferred to Manus Island until the quality of that facility was improved, but emphasised that no one on boats arriving from now on would ever be resettled in Australia.
By shutting the door on all boat arrivals from this point, the government is looking to address the basic flaw in the Gillard government’s version of the Pacific Solution, that asylum seekers reaching Australia by boat might be transferred for processing to an offshore facility, but they ultimately remained Australia’s responsibility and would have to eventually be resettled in Australia unless another country accepted them.
But under this agreement, that other country will now, permanently, be PNG, thereby removing the capacity of anyone arriving in Australia by boat to be resettled in Australia. Instead PNG, a country with significant developmental issues and a high crime rate, will become the home of anyone arriving by boat. It is, in effect, an open-ended version of the Malaysian Solution, which was struck out by the High Court after refugee advocates challenged it and thus opened the way to the far more draconian, and far less effective, return to the Pacific Solution.
Politically, this just may provide Rudd with enough to neutralise the issue in the electorate: Tony Abbott has his own problems on the issue, with a virtual war of words with Indonesia over towing back boats; Rudd can now present what was, in the context of the Malaysian agreement, a virtual tow-back, if not to Indonesia, then to Port Moresby. And given the agreement has now been reached with the PNG government, it will be difficult for Tony Abbott to repudiate it.
Whether the “Rudd Solution” turns out to be effective remains to be seen, but the pattern of boat arrivals after the announcement of the Malaysian Solution suggests that the prospect of automatically being transferred to a third country is a significant deterrent for asylum seekers desperate to reach Australia by boat.