17 Aug 2012

Australian officials prepare offshore processing in PNG and Nauru

4:51 pm on 17 August 2012

Australian immigration and defence officials are laying the groundwork with Papua New Guinea and Nauru for the reopening of asylum seeker processing centres in the two island nations.

This comes after Australian senators, following recommendations from a high-level independent panel, passed legislation to pursue offshore processing as a deterrent to asylum seekers trying to reach Australia.

The reopening of centres formerly used under the co-called "Pacific Solution" of the former Howard government has taken on extra urgency as more boats crammed with asylum seekers reach Australian waters.

The swift passage of the offshore processing legislation constitutes a major reversal for Australia's Labor government which dismantled the policy after it came to power in 2007.

The government's earlier proposed people-swap deal forged with Malaysia had been poorly received in Australia.

And with arrivals of so-called "boat people" mounting and, in the last three years, accounting for 600 deaths at sea, Canberra has been under immense pressure to address the issue.

Nauru's Government has wasted no time agreeing to reopen the centre - it could happen within a month.

Nauru's foreign minister, Dr Kieren Keke, says there has been no discussion on Australia increasing its overall aid assistance.

"There has been ongoing significant funding and assistance from Australia. There is no denying that there will be some benefits in terms of jobs available for Nauruans that would be employed with the centre and the flow on economic benefit from the increased activity that the centre will provide, but it has not been the driver of our decision to provide assistance to Australia."

PNG's government has signalled that it too will agree to reopening its processing facility despite strong opposition in some quarters.

The National Capital Governor, Powes Parkop, has warned that locking up asylum seekers is against PNG's law and culture, and that he could take legal action if the centre is reopened.

The Attorney General Kerenga Kua says cabinet is looking at how Australia's request can be accommodated within PNG's laws.

His concern centres around what I think has been an initial misconception that this will be viewed as a detention centre. This will not be a detention centre. It will be a processing facility. The occupants of the facility, as in the past, will have the freedom to move around and interact in the community with the Manus people.

The International Organisation for Migration ran the previous Nauru and Manus Island refugee processing centres, providing food, shelter, clothing and other essentials for the asylum seekers.

The IOM chief of mission in Australia, Mark Getchell, confirmed they have has been approached by Canberra again.

All we've had is a call to ask, would IOM be amenable to becoming involved. IOM's response has been we would open to that, in principle, as long as IOM's role would be to make the lives of migrants in this situation better and more dignified if we can provide services to that end.

The IOM does not provide security services or perform refugee assessments.

Those duties may have to be shouldered by Australia again.

The previous offshore processing of refugees was overseen by Australia's Immigration officials after the UN High Commission for Refugees boycotted the process at an early stage.

The UNHCR had deep concerns with Pacific Solution, saying bona fide refugees suffered unnecessarily long periods of isolation, mental hardship and uncertainty.

A psychiatrist, who has been involved in advising the Australian government on the mental health of asylum seekers, Professor Louise Newman of Monash University, says the prospect of people again being detained on remote islands, is very concerning.

Whether they are in Christmas Island, Manus Island, Nauru - it is really about the difficulties of providing services which are very much needed for vulnerable people, the length of time they spend and the fact they have pre-existing trauma. When they don't have a sense that their situation can be resolved then they start to mentally deteriorate.

However Dr Kieren Keke says it remains the highest priority for Nauru's government that the asylum seekers are well looked after.

In that we believe we can provide an excellent facility and a great environment for them. Despite that there is always going to be psychological stress due to the uncertainty of the process and the situation that they are in. And as I said that is going to be whether they are in Nauru or being processed in mainland Australia or any other country.

One of the central recommendations of the panel was that asylum seekers arriving by boat should be given no advantage in gaining asylum in Australia over those who apply for asylum from their homeland.

However, given that the process for those other asylum seekers can be very lengthy, this leaves no guarantee that the offshore processing will this time around be timely as the panel has recommended.