By Jack Georgieff
Upon returning to office a month ago, Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd promised to seek a regional solution to the politically toxic issue of asylum seekers. To do so, he is leaning heavily on a neighbor to the north: Papua New Guinea.
On July 19, Rudd announced a harsh new policy approach to ‘boat people.’ All asylum seekers arriving by boat without a visa will have no chance of resettlement in Australia even if they are found to be genuine refugees. Instead, they will be settled in Papua New Guinea. There was no cap on the number of asylum seekers that could be sent to Papua New Guinea, indicating a hard-line approach in Australia’s policy towards boat arrivals. This policy goes far beyond anything that John Howard or Julia Gillard proposed in their respective iterations of the ‘Pacific Solution.’ Polling already shows this policy has helped secure a new competitiveness for the election campaign that was unthinkable only weeks ago. This election was called this past weekend for September 7, 2013.
The immediate issue in front of the Rudd government is to make the policy work on the surface for the electorate. Already there are signs that it could come apart at the seams. Papua New Guinea is ranked 156 out of 187 countries on the UN Human Development Index. The capital, Port Moresby, has been ranked the second most unliveable city on earth. Government services and infrastructure are beyond inadequate. The big issue for potential asylum seekers cum migrants will be urban lawlessness and personal security – this is what makes Port Moresby so unliveable, alongside exorbitant urban rents driven up by the impact of a mining boom.
Conflicting reports over how this policy would be paid for initially suggested the Papua New Guinean government was being given unprecedented power over the $500 million AUD in annual Australian aid funding. Such reports are not true. The additional package of aid responds to Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O’Neil’s desire to kick start some high visibility projects that were already on the bilateral agenda but still in planning infancy. There will be more new infrastructure in the program rather than focus on maintenance of infrastructure. The Papua New Guinean government has to invest half of the capital in some of these projects, so Canberra will have some direction over where aid money is spent. Regardless, it adds to the complexity of managing Australia’s very significant aid program in Papua New Guinea and potentially diverts attention from implementing other vital elements of the program.
Many asylum seekers affected by this policy will likely not make it to Port Moresby or parts of the wider mainland. They will initially be settled on Manus Island. Whistle blower allegations made recently claim that torture and episodes of rape among male asylum seekers are common, describing living conditions as not even fit to, “serve as a dog kennel.” This has lead Immigration Minister Tony Burke to fly there himself in an attempt to rectify the situation for the government. Australia’s already shaky international reputation on the issue will take another hit
Not be outdone, opposition leader Tony Abbott has announced ‘Operation Sovereign Borders.’ If implemented, a Coalition government will install a three star commander from the Australian Defence Force for the operation, who will report directly to the federal immigration minister. This conflicts with the chain of command structure, and does not take into account that a military commander can only report on military operations to the Minister of Defence. Abbott’s policy has the prospect of alienating the defense establishment, creating further chaos over this fraught area of public policy. Alongside Abbott’s pledge to “turn back the boats” to Indonesian waters, the increasing militarization of a humanitarian issue could further damage Australia’s reputation as a global citizen.
Friends and allies of Australia in the region need to speak up, either publicly or privately and promote a more compassionate, humanitarian understanding of the issue. Initially, the Howard government acted with security considerations in mind, while Rudd’s first government dismantled that program and still hundreds died trying to reach the country. This underpins the competing humanitarian and security paradigms that shape the issue in Australia.
The Rudd government will hope this policy deters any prospective boat arrivals with an almost immediate effect. The reality will be more difficult. Even implementation of the Pacific Solution in 2001 did not see an immediate cessation in boat arrivals. 43 boats carrying 5,516 asylum seekers arrived in 2001. Only 1 boat carrying 1 person arrived in 2002. Numbers spiked in the years after, although never more than 200 asylum seeker arrivals for any one year. If Rudd’s policy works, it will likely take effect over a similar time frame. Australia needs to work with Papua New Guinea and other neighbors on a long term basis to oversee proper implementation of the policy, which the Rudd government and Abbott’s opposition appear committed to do. Over 1,300 asylum seekers have already made the dangerous journey since the new policy was announced.