Australia scraps 'Pacific Solution' for refugees

Kathy Marks
Tuesday 11 December 2007 01:00 GMT

It was, perhaps, the most reviled policy of John Howard's centre-right government: sending asylum-seekers to remote Pacific islands, where they spent years behind razor wire before being declared, for the most part, genuine refugees.

Yesterday the new Labour government, led by Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister, began dismantling the discredited policy, granting asylum to seven Burmese men held on Nauru for more than a year and signalling its intention to resolve the cases of 82 Sri Lankans also on Nauru.

Australia paid the tiny, impoverished nation millions of dollars to set up a detention centre where would-be refugees intercepted at sea were incarcerated, under the notorious "Pacific Solution". Another centre was set up on the island of Manus, in Papua New Guinea.

The solution was adopted in 2001, when 5,000 asylum-seekers arrived in Australia by boat a number deemed "a flood", although 95,000 people with similar claims arrived in Britain that year.

Two months before an election, with his coalition government lagging in the polls, Mr Howard refused to allow the MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter carrying 438 mainly Afghan refugees rescued from a sinking ship, to land on Christmas Island, an Australian Indian Ocean territory. Australia then sent commando troops to board the vessel. The move sparked international condemnation, but the coalition went on to win the election. Most of Tampa's occupants were taken to Nauru, where most were later granted refugee status.

In the harshest border policy in the Westernised world, the Australian Navy was then deployed to intercept asylum-seekers at sea. The government also excised Australia's offshore islands from its immigration zone in order to deprive boat people of the right to claim asylum.

Yesterday, Chris Evans, the Immigration Minister, said the Burmese refugees all reportedly members of a persecuted Muslim minority would be resettled in Brisbane before Christmas. "In my view, they should have been processed some time ago," he said. Mr Evans said the status of the Sri Lankans, the only remaining refugees in Nauru, would be determined soon.

David Manne, a refugee advocate representing the Burmese group, said they were "very happy, extremely relieved by the news and really looking forward to being able to rebuild their lives".

The Pacific Solution was criticised by human rights groups and by the UN. Asylum-seekers in offshore processing centres had no recourse to the appeals system available in Australia. Conditions on Nauru, in particular, were condemned as deplorable by refugee advocates, and a number of hunger strikes were staged. Paul Power, chief executive of the Refugee Council, described it as "a failed policy that created great psychological damage and undermined Australia's reputation on human rights."

Mr Evans said the new government would continue to intercept boats. He denied that scrapping the Pacific Solution represented a softening of border policy.

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