Australia and Papua New Guinea have announced the closure of Canberra’s offshore refugee processing program by the end of this year, leaving responsibility for the remaining asylum seekers and refugees to Port Moresby. At the same time, Nauru will now take on “enduring” responsibility for Australia’s offshore program.
The decision comes twenty years after the so-called “Pacific Solution” was first established. During the 2001 Tampa crisis, Prime Minister John Howard desperately sought locations in the Pacific to establish offshore refugee processing centres. Fiji, Tuvalu, Palau, and Kiribati were approached by Australian diplomats, but all refused to play along. Even Timor-Leste was considered as a site for camps, even though the islands were not yet independent and still recovering from Indonesian human rights atrocities and destruction of infrastructure just two years before.
Only two countries finally agreed – both former Australian dependencies – and camps were established on Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, allowing Australia to keep asylum seekers arriving by boat away from its shores.
I wrote my first report on Australia’s Pacific Solution in 2001. That year, the first in a series of Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) between Australia and Papua New Guinea said refugees would leave in six months “or as short a time as is reasonably necessary.” Now, twenty years on and five years after the PNG Supreme Court declared the program illegal, both countries are admitting defeat and Canberra is dumping the problem on its northern neighbour.
These changes come at a time when the PNG and Nauru’s economies have been battered by debt and disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic. They also follow the withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan, with the likelihood that more desperate people will seek asylum in the region after fleeing from the Taliban. Operation Sovereign Borders – which refuses asylum seekers the right to land in Australia by boat – will continue indefinitely.
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