24 Mar 2022

Australia finally accepts New Zealand's offer to take refugees

3:45 pm on 24 March 2022

In a major about-turn, Australia has accepted New Zealand's long-standing offer to take 150 refugees a year for three years from detention centres in the Pacific.

A view of a dwelling at refugee Camp Four on the Pacific island of Nauru.

Australia's refugee Camp Four on the Pacific island of Nauru. Photo: AFP or licensors

The deal aims to rehome some of the thousands of refugees who have arrived in Australia by boat, and been placed in detention in line with the country's policy.

The original offer was made by then-prime minister John Key in 2013 and has continued to be extended by his successors Bill English and Jacinda Ardern.

Australian authorities have rejected the proposal until now, citing concerns that the refugees could claim Kiwi citizenship and then travel into Australia freely.

The arrivals will be included as part of New Zealand's existing refugee quota, and will initially include refugees who:

  • Are in Nauru or temporarily in Australia under regional processing arrangements
  • Who meet New Zealand's Refugee Quota Programme requirements
  • Who are referred to New Zealand by the UNHCR
  • Who are not being resettled to other countries, such as the United States

Australia's Minister for Home Affairs Karen Andrews says the arrangement does not apply to anyone who attempts to illegally enter the country by boat in the future.

"I would like to thank Minister Faafoi for engaging so constructively with me throughout this process, I'm pleased that our two countries were able to reach this agreement. Australia will continue to work with New Zealand, and the UNHCR, to operationalise the arrangement."

Australia's Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo last month acknowledged there was an "in principle" deal to accept the offer.

Kris Faafoi

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

New Zealand Immigration Minister Faafoi said at the time that there were still a few details to be sorted out, but it was a bottom line that refugees would go through the same UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) process as other incoming refugees.

This would ensure they would undergo assessment and screening.

He said today that the long-standing offer reflected New Zealand and Australia's close relationship.

"New Zealand has a long and proud history of refugee resettlement and this arrangement is another example of how we are fulfilling our humanitarian international commitment. We are pleased to be able to provide resettlement outcomes for refugees who would otherwise have continued to face uncertain futures."

Amnesty Australia says there were still 112 people in the Nauru centre, and 104 in Papua New Guinea. There were also 1174 living in the community after being brought to Australia for medical reasons, with half in community detention and the remainder on six-month visas.

The United States also made an offer to take up to 1250 Australian refugees, which was accepted, and the first were accepted into the US in 2017. However, even if the US deal was met in full, it would not be enough to house all those detained by Australia.

Some 4174 people, including children, were detained by Australia after unauthorised arrival by boat in 1999 and 2000. Since the second iteration of offshore detention began in 2012, refugees banished to Melanesia by Australia have suffered appalling rates of mental illness, in conditions described as torturous by the United Nations. At least 12 have died.

Last year, it was revealed to be spending $AU3.5 million of taxpayer money per refugee, annually.

The stated rationale for their detention was to maintain the integrity of the offshore migration programme, including Australia's usual refugee programme. It aimed to send a message to those arriving that they would not be simply accepted into the community.

However with so many in detention, reports of riots, break-outs, suicide attempts and child abuse became frequent, and the legitimacy of the policy was questioned internationally, including by the UN.

In a statement, the Green Party said it welcomed the "long overdue deal", but it should sit alongside New Zealand's existing refugee quota of 1500 a year, rather than be included in it.

"New Zealand's refugee quota has not been filled for two years now because of the Covid-19 pandemic," human rights and refugee spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman said.

"Extending the offer to resettle refugees and ensuring the quota can be met in full is an important way we can acknowledge the worsening plight of refugees in Ukraine and Afghanistan.

"People escaping war, torture and persecution based on their religion, race, and political activism deserve a place to call home. They deserve protection but for so long have been denied their rights."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs