Australia agrees to resettlement of offshore refugees

MELBOURNE, Australia – After years of refusing to budge, Australia’s government announced on Thursday that it had accepted an offer from New Zealand to release some refugees it currently or previously has held in its much-criticized offshore detention center system , to relocate.

The deal – to take in 150 refugees a year for three years – was first offered in 2013 by John Key, then New Zealand Prime Minister, to his Australian counterpart Julia Gillard. It came after Australia instituted a policy preventing people arriving by boat from ever settling in the country, detaining them on Nauru, a Pacific island nation, and on the island of Manus in Papua New Guinea.

Human rights groups considered the arrests a violation of international law.

It wasn’t immediately clear why the Australian government changed its mind. Over the years, Australia had hinted that approving the deal would only encourage more people to make dangerous sea crossings to try to enter the country. The government had also raised the possibility that former refugees who became New Zealand citizens would eventually seek to settle in Australia. All refugees entering New Zealand are put on the path to citizenship.

Kris Faafoi, New Zealand’s Immigration Minister, said on Thursday: “We are pleased to be able to deliver resettlement outcomes to refugees who would otherwise have continued to face an uncertain future.” He added: “New Zealand has a long and proud history of resettling refugees, and this agreement is another example of how we are fulfilling our international humanitarian obligation.”

Under the new arrangement, the 150 places will come from New Zealand’s total annual refugee quota of 1,500 people. Each person is screened by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and subjected to the same procedure as other people seeking asylum in New Zealand, Mr Faafoi said in a statement.

Refugees can already register for the program, which is expected to take about 12 months to process, supporters said.

Australia has arrested more than 3,000 refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus. About 112 people remain in Nauru, while hundreds more have been temporarily transferred to mainland Australia for medical and other reasons.

The detention centers have drawn the attention of news media around the world, and human rights groups have cited the atrocious conditions in which the refugees live.

“We are talking about extremely harsh conditions,” said Graham Thom, refugee coordinator at Amnesty International Australia, of life in the offshore centres. “There were all sorts of reports of physical and sexual assault, molestation, and again suicides due to mental and physical health impairments.”

In 2016, a 23-year-old Iranian refugee died in Nauru after setting himself on fire during a visit by officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in apparent protest at Australian policies. Within a week, a 21-year-old Somali refugee set himself on fire on the same island, suffering life-threatening injuries.

Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian refugee and award-winning writer held in a detention center on Manus Island until its closure in 2017, has become a prominent voice for hundreds of people living in exile on the island.

dr Thom suggested that the Australian government switched gears in part because “the length and cost” of incarceration had become a liability. Housing the 112 people on Nauru costs Australian taxpayers nearly $220 million every six months, he said.

“Things like that started to weigh on the government, while elsewhere there are clearly budget pressures,” he added.

Elizabeth Young, a New Zealand-based lawyer for the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, said of the government’s about-face: “It wasn’t until Peter Dutton resigned as Home Secretary that it was first really talked about, publicly, as an actual possibility.”

In a statement, Karen Andrews, who succeeded Mr Dutton last year, stood by the Government’s hard line on illegal immigration. She said no one who tried to travel to Australia illegally by boat would be allowed to settle in the country.

“Australia stands firm – illegal sea arrivals will not settle here permanently,” she said Thursday. “Anyone trying to breach our borders will be turned back or sent to Nauru.”

Abul Rizvi, a former deputy secretary at Australia’s Immigration Service, said there was little evidence New Zealand would become a route for asylum seekers to eventually settle in Australia. It will take many years for refugees to become New Zealand citizens, by which time most will have jobs and connections within that country, he said.

“The New Zealand labor market is currently very robust – the unemployment rate is well below Australia’s unemployment rate,” said Dr. Rizvi. “Once you have come to Australia, as a New Zealand citizen you do not have access to any type of social support. What would make you want to come to Australia?”

He said the current Australian government has prolonged the situation.

“The only reason they’ve been able to do this for so long is because they thought there was a political advantage,” he said.

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