19 Aug 2020

Uncertainty drags on for refugees left in Pacific by Canberra

9:52 pm on 19 August 2020

There's another warning about the welfare of refugees stuck in the Pacific due to the uncertainty created by Australia's ongoing offshore detention policy.

Members of Greenpeace hold up a sign  in front of the Opera House in Sydney on February 14, 2016.

Members of Greenpeace hold up a sign in front of the Opera House in Sydney on February 14, 2016. Photo: AFP PHOTO / Peter PARKS

Over 370 people are still held in Papua New Guinea and Nauru as part of a 2013 agreement that all refugees arriving in Australia by boat be detained in the Pacific countries.

While Covid-19 has meant even more uncertainty about their future, refugee advocates continued to argue the refugees should be allowed into Australia.

Amnesty International's Refugee Coordinator, Graham Thom, said the remaining uncertainty about what to do with these people added to their mental anguish.

As the Universal Periodic Review of Australia's human rights record approaches, and Amnesty prepared its submission for the review, Dr Thom said many of the refugees still suffered in terrible conditions.

"They have had seven years to work this out.

"We've had the criticism from the UN, through the periodic review. It's extraordinary to think we're going to another Universal Periodic Review in front of the UN where (Australia) will be criticised again, and yet nothing's changed."

Dr Thom said that while previous Universal Periodic Reviews had recommended various changes to its refugee policy, Canberra appeared to have thumbed its nose at the international community.

"Yet as we've seen, they've quietly been trying to get people off Nauru and PNG because they know it's just not sustainable. It's just costing them a fortune and it's irrelevant."

Australia's programme had become more about turnbacks and not holding people in PNG and Nauru, he explained, describing the policy as a politically driven nightmare that had destroyed peoples' lives.

While a number of refugees remaining on Nauru or in PNG were expected to fill the few remaining positions in Australia's refugee swap deal to settle in the US, that arrangement was nearing an end.

Dr Thom said there were recent signs that Canberra may change its earlier decision to reject New Zealand's offer to take refugees, although the Covid-19 pandemic had put that on hold.

However he said Canberra should finally modify its policy that refugees arriving by boat could never come to Australia.

"Under John Howard (Australia's former prime minister 1996-2007) half of the refugees were resettled by New Zealand and the other half came to Australia, and they're now proud Australian citizens.

"But once you take those two solutions out of the equation, then we were stuck with people who were just going to be destroyed through this."