PNG agrees to reopen Australia asylum camp, as refugee swap with M'sia stalls

Updated On: Aug 12, 2011

Papua New Guinea's cabinet has approved an Australian proposal to reopen an immigration detention centre on the remote Manus Island. The centre will be run and paid for by the Australian government.

The announcement comes amid a legal row over Australia's refugee swap deal with Malaysia.

Earlier this week, Australia's High Court stopped the authorities from deporting a boat-load of asylum seekers until a full hearing could be held.

The controversial agreement between the two countries, dubbed the "Malaysia Solution", would see Australia send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia in return for 4,000 processed refugees over the next four years. But critics say refugees are often mistreated in Malaysia, which has not signed the UN Refugee Convention.

The Manus Island centre in Papua New Guinea was part of the so-called "Pacific Solution" adopted by Australia under Prime Minister John Howard. Processing centres were set up there and on the island of Nauru, the governments of the two nations receiving millions of dollars in aid in exchange.

The Australian navy was deployed to divert all boats carrying asylum seekers to those camps, where many were detained for months under high security. Many Australians supported the policy, but rights groups condemned it and accused Australia of failing to meet its obligations under refugee conventions.

The policy was reversed in 2008 by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, after he defeated Mr Howard in Australia's general elections. But Australia has seen an increase in the number of people arriving by boat in recent months, prompting public calls for a tougher response.

Report: Papua New Guinea agrees to reopen Australia asylum camp [BBC News, 11 Aug 2011]

Australia and Papua New Guinea reached an in-principle agreement on the reopening of the Manus Island centre, following the election last week of new PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill.

Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the re-opening of the centre would “complement” the government's Malaysian refugee swap, which is currently being challenged in the High Court.

“If you have offshore processing as a complement to other initiatives such as the arrangement with Malaysia, then it can be part of a deterrent,” he said.

“We are not saying that Manus Island in and of itself of course is the answer to the problems.”

But according to Mr Bowen, the United Nations' refugee agency, the UNHCR, would be sidelined from involvement in the Manus Island detention centre when it is reopened by Australia in several weeks' time.

He said the Australian government would talk to the UNHCR, but the agency would not play a role in the centre's management.

“We certainly don't envisage UNHCR involvement,” he said.

Report: UN refugee agency to play no role in PNG detention centre [The Australian, 12 Aug 2011]

But there are conflicting views in Papua New Guinea about the benefits of opening the mothballed detention centre on Manus Island. While the government has given Australia the green light, one prominent politician says it's unconstitutional and aims to shut down the deal in Papua New Guinea's courts.

Powes Parkop, the governor of Papua New Guinea's national capital district, said: "I think it's not right that Australia keeps on passing this problem to its neighbouring country, in PNG, and Nauru and now Malaysia."

He said under Papua New Guinea's laws, only those charged with criminal offences can be detained.

"And if we're going to get the people who are going to come here and be placed in detention without being charged then we are setting a bad precedent."

Report & Analysis: Mixed feelings in PNG to detention centre reopening [ABC News, 12 Aug 2011]

Australia's government came under further pressure yesterday with the arrival of a boat carrying 102 new asylum-seekers on Wednesday night, including children.

The new asylum-seekers are from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This takes the number of asylum-seekers being held on Australia's Christmas Island to 207. These people are currently scheduled to be deported to Malaysia, if the refugee swap deal survives its legal challenge in Australia's High Court.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the Malaysia Solution's "use-by date" is fast approaching, regardless of the court case. Malaysia will only take 800 refugees from Australia under the current deal, and the asylum-seekers on Christmas Island already make up a quarter of that number.

"It's a one-off deal with one country with a clear use-by date and a huge cost of almost $300 million, which simply hasn't been thought through," he said.

Australia's High Court will hear the challenge to the Malaysia deal on 22 August.

Report: More taxpayer cash splurged on Gillard Government's asylum seeker bailout[news.com.au, 12 Aug 2011]

But according to Dr. John Stuyfbergen, an academic at Australia's La Trobe University, the refugee situation is "a practical problem that needs a pragmatic solution".

"Terms such as "people trading" and deporting "little kiddies to Malaysia" slant the debate and the results before we even know whether the "Malaysian solution" (combined with the re-opening of Manus Island in Papua New Guinea) is, in the end, correct in the fair treatment of the transferred refugees and effective in crushing the people smugglers' syndicates," wrote Dr. Stuyfbergen in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Dr. Stuyfbergen notes the original aim of the Malaysian deal is simply to stop people smugglers transporting vulnerable asylum-seekers to Australian shores in dangerous boats, by making it clear arriving refugees will not be processed in Australia.

Although Australia will be deporting new arrivals to Malaysia, it will be taking 4000 already-processed refugees from Malaysia in exchange.

Analysis: Let's give the Malaysia solution a chance to work [Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Aug 2011]

Last year, 134 boats filled with refugees arrived in Australia, carrying some 6,535 people.

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