THE ‘PACIFIC Solution’ for asylum seekers arriving in Australia’s waters by boat needs to be seen in the context of broader changes in Australian foreign policy.
An era of intervention centred on exporting ‘good governance’ and economic liberalisation that took Australian-led missions to Solomon Islands and East Timor has given way to a ‘new mood of austerity’.
It is a mood linked to a more overt focus on Australia’s ‘national interests’. Echoing similar developments in Canada and New Zealand, the Australian aid agency, AusAID, was absorbed into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in late 2013, a move which incoming prime minister Tony Abbott described as enabling ‘the aid and diplomatic arms of Australia’s international policy agenda to be more closely aligned’.
The previous government’s winding down of the ten-year Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) in mid-2013, and the transfer of many of its civilian programs to the Australian High Commission, was similarly claimed to be ‘ensuring the alignment of program objectives with Australia’s broader national interests’.
The primacy of the ‘national interest’ in contemporary Australian Pacific policy is most strikingly expressed by Operation Sovereign Borders: entailing military interception of ‘unauthorized maritime arrivals’ who are then sent to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, two islands that were formerly administered by Australia under United Nations trust territory arrangements.
The incoming Abbott government did not initiate the ‘Pacific Solution’. John Howard’s 1996‒2007 Coalition government was responsible for a first phase of ‘offshore processing’ of Australia’s unwanted asylum seekers.
The policy was halted by the incoming Kevin Rudd-led Labor government, which assumed office in December 2007. At the time, Rudd’s new Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Evans, described it as ‘a cynical, costly and ultimately unsuccessful exercise’.
Transports were nevertheless resumed in 2012 under Julia Gillard’s government to fend off opposition criticism that boats carrying would-be refugees had recommenced landing on Australia’s shores.
In mid-2013, Gillard’s successor as prime minister, the restored Kevin Rudd, signed a Regional Resettlement Arrangement (RRA) with PNG with the objective of ensuring that ‘any unauthorised maritime arrival entering Australian waters will be liable for transfer to Papua New Guinea (in the first instance, Manus Island) for processing and resettlement’.
Operation Sovereign Borders may have entailed a toughening of the earlier Labor stance and greater secrecy in administration, but the core policy was bipartisan.
Rudd’s Regional Resettlement Arrangement led to a 2013 spike in asylum-seeker transports to Manus Island, and those sent to Nauru soon also doubled. PNG played only a minor role in the 2001‒08 phase of the ‘Pacific Solution’ whereas Nauru, with a population of around 10,000, hosted over a thousand asylum seekers in both phases.
Numbers accommodated at Nauru and Manus Island combined peaked at 2,432 in February 2014. In the initial phase, assessments of refugee status were undertaken by Australian officials and by the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee agency.
In the second phase, determinations were at least in theory to be disposed by Papua New Guinean and Nauruan officials themselves. Both countries passed legislation to facilitate this, an example of what Shahar Hameiri identifies as an ‘inside-out approach’ of external powers ‘transforming the governing architecture of intervened states from within’.
Those found to qualify as refugees were expected to be resettled in PNG, but in Nauru’s case ‒ where the population constraints are severe ‒ the Australian government sought additional resettlement agreements with other countries, such as Cambodia.
The first phase of the Pacific Solution was estimated to have cost around AU$1 billion, including the associated aid packages. Immigration and border protection expenditures on the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres reached AU$3.9 billion over the 2012‒13 to 2015‒16 financial years, not including any other departmental costs (e.g. under the defence portfolio) or the associated aid packages to sweeten the deals (under the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade portfolio).
To put that in comparative perspective, Australian spending on the 14-year 2003‒17 RAMSI operation is budgeted to reach AU$2.9 billion. Other additional operational costs for ‘support for unauthorised maritime arrivals living in community based arrangements’ have controversially been charged under the Australian aid program.
What have been the repercussions of Manus Island and Nauru hosting the detention centres?
As Dalsgaard and Wallis point out, caution is advisable: predictions of massive disruption to traditional culture occasioned by episodic commercial ventures or military installations on Manus have proved wrong in the past.
For Papua New Guinea, the detention centre is far less economically important than is its counterpart for Nauru. PNG has other sources of foreign earnings: gold, silver, copper, logging, coffee, palm oil, cocoa, fisheries and above all liquid natural gas.
By contrast, for Nauru the centre has provided a lifeline in the wake of the decline of the country’s phosphate industry. Some phosphate exports continue. After temporary closure of port facilities in 2003, small-scale mining of secondary phosphate deposits resumed from late 2005.
Like its central Pacific Island neighbours, Nauru has also obtained some increase in fishing license earnings as a result of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement’s Vessel Day Scheme. Nevertheless, Nauru has become highly reliant on revenues associated with the detention centre. Income levels fell sharply when the refugee processing centre last closed in 2008. Nauru politicians have therefore been much less prone to oppose the re-opening of the centre than their PNG counterparts, fearing a negative reaction from cash-strapped electorates.
Hosting Australian detention centres might, then, be seen as another chapter in the long history of island micro-states dexterously using strategic assets to capture unusual sources of foreign exchange earnings.
But the costs are potentially severe and enduring for both Nauru and PNG, whether these come as a result of the sudden termination of the centres or of pressures to honour commitments to resettle refugees.
On 26 April 2016, the PNG Supreme Court found the Manus Island detention centre to be in violation of the 1975 Constitution. Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s Constitutional Amendment No. 37 (Citizenship Law) 2014 ‒ which sought to qualify and restrict the constitutional rights of asylum seekers ‒ was found to have failed to demonstrate that detention was ‘in the public interest and reasonably justifiable in a democratic country’.
Orders were that ‘the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments shall forthwith take all steps necessary to cease and prevent the continued unconstitutional and illegal detention of the asylum seekers or transferees at the relocation centre on Manus Island’.
The next day, O’Neill announced that the Manus detention centre would be closed, and that Australia would be required to make alternative arrangements. There would be negotiations between the governments about the time frame of the closure and about ‘managing the settlement of legitimate refugees who are interested in staying in Papua New Guinea’. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was adamant that none would be allowed to resettle in Australia.
To sustain its offshore detention policy, the Australian government is dependent: 1. on PNG honouring commitments to resettle those assessed as ‘genuine refugees’; 2. on finding other alternatives for the Nauru refugees; 3. on establishing other facilities for so-called ‘transferees’ presently on Manus Island and for any new arrivals in Australian waters (whose status is yet to be determined); and 4. on continuing to repatriate those deemed not to be genuine refugees to their places of initial embarkation.
Changes in Australian foreign policy since the Coalition assumed office have not entailed any disengagement from the Pacific region. Efforts have been made to protect the Pacific from substantial cuts to other parts of Australia’s foreign assistance programme.
Claims of a ‘paradigm shift’ in Australian aid policy conceal important elements of continuity ‒ for example, in the emphasis on private sector growth, performance incentives, ‘value for money’ self-reliance, and innovation.
The new austerity in aid policy has been acclaimed as entailing a closer alignment with Australia’s national and commercial interests, but it is only a convenient myth (or a euphemism to disparage perceived past idealism) to claim that the now defunct AusAID, or the mission to Solomon Islands, or even Gareth Evans’ 1988 doctrine of ‘constructive commitment’ to the Pacific, ever truly departed from such a focus. No robust state ever abandons its national interest, although some project this through a broader regional or normative lens.
In their dealings with less powerful states, strong states do, however, often take advantage of asymmetries in power. Seeking sites for its detention centres and hosts for the resettlement of refugees, the Australian government scoured the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia. It settled on Manus Island and Nauru, two islands that were formerly administered under Australia through United Nations trusteeship arrangements.
Both PNG and Nauru had remained thereafter post-independence recipients of substantial Australian funding. In the new millennium, Nauru in particular was too reliant on Australian assistance, and too devoid of alternatives, to refuse. The consequences for both countries have been substantial, as have the implications for Australia’s reputation in the region.