On Sunday November 13, the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, announced that a deal has been struck with the United States government to transfer refugees from Manus Island and Nauru detention centres to the US.
While it is unclear how many of the 1800 asylum seekers will be part of the transfer deal, the Australian government confirmed that it would only be available to those who had been processed and found to be refugees. Those asylum seekers who have thus far been denied refugee status will be given the opportunity to return to their countries of origin or to settle on Nauru, a small island nation in the Pacific Ocean with a population of approximately 10,000.
The announcement comes as a welcome sign of the coming end to the indefinite detention of asylum seekers and refugees by the Australian government. Australia’s indefinite detention policy was introduced by the Rudd Labor government in 2013. The policy declares that no asylum seeker that comes to Australia by boat will ever be settled in Australia, regardless of whether they are found to be refugees or otherwise. The government has come under increasing public and international pressure to cease the detention of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island. Revelations of self-harm, suicides, self-immolation, sexual abuse and the physical and sexual abuse of children in the detention centres in the recent “Nauru files” and from ongoing reporting by the public broadcaster, the ABC, The Guardian, and Amnesty International. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has tentatively endorsed the proposed transfer deal, noting that it does not change Australia’s international obligations with regards to asylum seekers.
The announcement of this deal with the United States comes a week after the Australian government announced plans to introduce legislation to the parliament that would prevent refugees that come to Australia, including those on Nauru and Manus Island, from ever visiting Australia in any capacity. There is little support for this proposal in the Parliament and it is not expected to pass.
Added to the announcement of the deal was a declaration that Australia would be stepping up its Operation Sovereign Borders activities. This is presumably so as to not appear to be softening the official position on refugees and asylum seekers. The continued and increasing militarisation and securitisation of the global refugee crisis, particularly by the Australian government continues to be of concern. The framing of the problem in this way is an attempt to legitimise the abhorrent treatment of these already vulnerable and traumatised people.
The Australian government, as a champion of human rights and liberal democratic values in the Asia-Pacific region should not follow the authoritarian instincts of its neighbours. It should work towards an international and regional solution with its neighbours, ensuring that no person is indefinitely detained in appalling conditions as these people have been.