“Imagine what the South Pacific would be like in five or six years’ time if there were 50,000 resettled refugees in PNG, and perhaps 10,000 in Vanuatu, 5000 in Solomon Islands and a few thousands elsewhere in the Pacific. These refugees would be Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Palestinians, perhaps some Sudanese and Somalis, and most of them getting some Australian financial support. This population would constitute a recipe for social instability and a significant security problem for the region”.
The Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is utterly shameless. Having opened the floodgates to up to 50-thousand asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat, he now seeks to dump them in Papua New Guinea and other Melanesian countries to save the Australian Labor Party’s skin in the coming election. The potential consequences for the member countries of the Melanesian Spearhead Group are extraordinarily grave, as The Australian’s Foreign Editor, Greg Sheridan, outlines in the article republished below. It’s high time for the Melanesian countries – led by Fiji – to stand up to this outrage. Because if it proceeds, it’s no exaggeration to say that the region will never be the same again.
KEVIN Rudd’s Papua New Guinea solution is a giant bluff, which nonetheless does have a small chance of working and is therefore well worth a try. But let’s be clear. The risks are enormous.
The PNG Solution can only work if it’s implemented ruthlessly. But equally it can only work if it’s only implemented a little bit.
Tony Abbott is entirely entitled to point out Rudd’s lack of credibility on this issue, point equally to the many holes and unexplained features of the scheme and to say it probably won’t work. For Rudd to say this encourages people-smugglers is ridiculous. It is not a few words by Abbott but the cumulative record of the Rudd and Gillard governments that has destroyed Australia’s credibility. Since Rudd abandoned John Howard’s policies in 2008, nearly 50,000 illegal arrivals have come by boat. That’s your credibility problem.
However, Abbott is not entitled to criticise PNG itself, to demonise the idea of sending asylum-seekers there, or to demonise even resettlement in PNG. Up to now, I would say the opposition has not crossed the line, but it’s come close. To have any chance of success, the PNG Solution must convince people-smugglers and their clients they won’t get permanently to Australia. The Rudd and Gillard governments have made words as cheap as chips in this area. Only actions count. Abbott is right to say the scheme has no credibility until people are transported to PNG.
However, if the program is implemented for more than a short time it’s going to create an entirely new security problem for us.
That will be the creation of a disgruntled, new Muslim population in the South Pacific.
Australia will seek a multi-nation scheme. Canberra would hope it has a chance of getting either the Philippines, Thailand or Indonesia, or some combination of them, to set up processing centres financed by Australia. This would be difficult, but not impossible. But none of those nations would accept the idea of permanent resettlement.
The only nations that could conceivably accept that are South Pacific nations. Australia could make the balance of such deals so attractive that South Pacific governments might accept them. But imagine what the South Pacific would be like in five or six years’ time if there were 50,000 resettled refugees in PNG, and perhaps 10,000 in Vanuatu, 5000 in Solomon Islands and a few thousands elsewhere in the Pacific.
These refugees would be Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Palestinians, perhaps some Sudanese and Somalis, and most of them getting some Australian financial support.
This population would constitute a recipe for social instability and a significant security problem for the region, and for us.
But the risks are greater even than that. If we get half way into implementing the solution and it doesn’t work at all, we will have completely destroyed the credibility not just of the Rudd government, but of Australia more generally, within the region, and with people-smugglers. Securing regional co-operation would then be much harder, so would deterring, or bluffing, the people-smugglers.
I sincerely hope the Rudd government is not making a cynical calculation that the obligatory court action will render the PNG Solution null and void, but do so after the election, so that, if re-elected, it can spend three years blaming the courts, or the opposition’s legislative recalcitrance, for ongoing failure. Surely that’s not in anybody’s mind. One way of pre-empting that is for a vigorous, rapid flow of the hundreds of people who have already arrived since Rudd’s judgment to PNG. It can’t happen in 48 hours, but it should happen very, very fast.
As it reviews its options for toughening up our refugee assessment process, the government is finding that any really effective action requires legislation. No matter who wins this election, the Australian government must legislate in this area. It needs to remove the right of appeals to the courts, to provide for one initial decision and one layer of administrative review and nothing more.
It must tightly define what the provisions of the refugee convention mean in Australian law.
The refugee convention is no longer a reasonable mechanism for determining refugee issues. It does not produce equity, justice or an ability for nations such as Australia to reasonably pursue the national interest. Its formal obligations are few, but activist courts have tended to accept the wildly expansive interpretations of the convention placed on it by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The UNHCR does good work in the field, but is a disastrous policy body.
The refugee convention has been incorporated into Australian law partly by direct legislation and partly by activist judicial interpretation. Probably the policy ideal would be to withdraw from the convention and work out our own laws reflecting our own adherence to universal values of human rights and our own national interests. We would get a better result out of this than we get from law by judges. However, this proposal is too radical, at least at the moment, although it would be salutary for the UNHCR to contemplate life without Australia’s money and without Australia’s generous provision of permanent resettlement places.
The whole question of who is a refugee is immensely complex and involves a thousand shades of grey. Some people definitely are, most coming to Australia in my view are not, and there is a big grey area. Even for those who are refugees there is no reasonable human rights claim that they can self select to live permanently in Australia. We should be generous in our refugee intake, but its composition should not be determined by people-smugglers. Many who come now are economic migrants rather than refugees, as Bob Carr has argued.
A better legislative initiative would be to pass explanatory legislation saying exactly how we interpret the refugee convention and placing explicit limits on that interpretation so that these decisions are rightfully made by parliament and government, influenced by our own debate, and not by courts that, conscientious as they are, are as easily fooled in this area of constant deception as anyone else.
Gillard would have been better to present such legislation and have it defeated, thus making the argument crystal clear to the electorate. Abbott will need such legislation if he is prime minister.