24 May 2023

Concern despite New Zealand move to resettle refugees who have been living in Australia

5:34 pm on 24 May 2023
Asylum seekers gesture to protesters holding a pro-refugee rights rally from their hotel room where they have been detained in Melbourne on June 13, 2020, after they were evacuated to Australia for medical reasons from offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island. (Photo by William WEST / AFP)

Asylum seekers gesture to supporters from their hotel room where they have been detained in Melbourne on June 13, 2020, after they were evacuated to Australia for medical reasons from offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island. Photo: AFP

Thirty refugees living in Australia will be resettled to this country next month amid a drawn-out process described as disgraceful by advocates.

New Zealand last year agreed to Australia's request to take 450 refugees held in offshore detention on Nauru.

However, with only 100 people left there, Canberra asked if some of the 1000 refugees already moved from detention camps to Australia could also be included in the deal.

Most of those relocated to the mainland had needed medical treatment and remained there afterwards.

In what is believed to be a first for New Zealand, it has now approved resettlement for 44 of those refugees already on Australian soil, as well as 17 in Nauru. The Australian-based refugees will make up the majority of former Nauru detainees New Zealand will rehome over three years.

Michael Wood

Michael Wood Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Australia classes them as 'transitory persons' but some have lived there for many years.

"The arrangement covers refugees in Nauru and temporarily in Australia and who are subject to Australia's offshore regional processing legislation," Immigration Minister Michael Wood told RNZ in a written statement.

"The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will refer refugees to New Zealand based on their priority protection needs and who meet New Zealand's annual Refugee Quota resettlement requirements.

"For those in Australia, a total of 258 persons have been submitted by UNHCR. Of those, 44 people have been approved from Australia, with plans for approximately 30 people to arrive from Australia by 30 June 2023."

Delayed arrivals

Wood stressed a key part of the process of resettling refugees in New Zealand was giving people the time and space to consider their decision to come here.

But advocates are worried that they are disillusioned and depressed at delays in the process to get into New Zealand.

Including those landing next month, only a third of the annual 150 refugees that New Zealand agreed to resettle have arrived since the deal was announced more than a year ago. Only 14 people have arrived from Nauru since November.

Australia's Refugee Action Coalition said the process was excruciatingly slow. "People were expecting 150 in the first year, there's been nothing like that," spokesman Ian Rintoul said.

"The [Australian] government has been harassing people from Manus and Nauru to be part of the New Zealand agreement, but a very small amount has happened with resettlement. So people have become very disillusioned."

Detention centres have been widely criticised as inhumane and a breach of international law, with allegations of mistreatment and abuse. The delays in getting an answer from New Zealand and moving here compounded the trauma they suffered there and in their home countries, Rintoul said.

Others had lived in Australia for years, had families and children, and did not want to uproot to start again, or had been unable to reunite with family still overseas. Some refugees were still waiting, eight years on, to be relocated to the United States after an earlier resettlement agreement.

He called it the "worst kind of irony" that New Zealand was now accepting refugees who should be settled in Australia, while New Zealanders awaiting deportation were now filling the Australian immigration detention centres that used to house asylum seekers.

Manus Island refugees omitted

Advocates are also concerned that the deal left out refugees who had been detainees in Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, which was used along with Nauru by Australia as a means of "offshoring" refugees and migrants over the last two decades.

When PNG's Supreme Court ruled the Manus Island detention facility was illegal, it was closed and some occupants took a time-locked offer to transfer to Nauru, but others remain there.

The original offer from New Zealand to take refugees from offshore detention centres - both Nauru and Manus Island - was made by then-prime minister John Key in 2013 and was extended by his successors.

At the time, then-Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres said it seemed unfair for New Zealand to be taking asylum-seekers from Australia at the cost of other refugees wanting to come to this country.

The refugees from Australia are taking spaces that would otherwise be allocated to refugees from other countries under the 1500-a-year quota.

But those refugees who remain on Manus are not part of last year's deal Australia struck with New Zealand to accept its refugees. Instead PNG is included in New Zealand's regular UNHCR refugee quota. Rintoul said so far only one family had been resettled, and INZ numbers confirm only five people so far have been accepted.

Kurdish-Iranian writer and political refugee Behrouz Boochani, who was detained on Manus Island, now lives in Wellington.

He previously told RNZ the Australia-New Zealand deal was positive, but he was upset it did not include Manus Island refugees relocated to Port Moresby in 2019.

At the time the Nauru deal was announced in March last year, the UNHCR regional representative for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, Adrian Edwards, said the prolonged uncertainty of refugees' situations had taken an enormous toll.

A Cabinet paper from last February on the Nauru deal noted UNHCR had strongly advocated for PNG-based refugees to be in the quota programme.

Offshore detention

The barren and bankrupt island state of the Republic of Nauru awaits the arrival of refugees, 11 September 2001. Just 25 square kilometres, Nauru has been devastated by phosphate mining which once made the Micronesians the second wealthiest people per capita on earth. AFP PHOTO/Torsten BLACKWOOD

The island of Nauru. Photo: AFP

Successive Australian governments held the line that allowing asylum seekers arriving by boat to settle on the mainland would encourage more maritime arrivals, and that deterring them would save lives at sea.

Part of its reluctance to accept New Zealand's offer to rehome its refugees stemmed from politicians' concerns it would undermine their pledge that no-one who arrived as an asylum seeker by boat would ever live permanently in Australia.

In a section entitled "implications for trans-Tasman travel", the Cabinet paper suggested New Zealand had been asked to consider restricting the Nauru refugees' opportunities to visit or move back to Australia in future.

"New Zealand should take the position that Australia's border decisions are a sovereign matter but that New Zealand would take no actions to disadvantage New Zealand citizens," it concluded.

It showed arrangements had not been finalised about whether to take Nauru refugees currently in Australia, and that officials considered whether the decision to take refugees from Australia would risk setting a precedent for its future quota refugee programme.

With large parts redacted - withheld on the grounds of international relations, and 'confidential information entrusted to the Government' - it detailed how "Australia has requested that New Zealand considers resettlements from a group of [redacted] refugees, subject to Australia's offshore processing legislation, currently located in Australia. Australia classes this group as transitory persons and Australian policy is that they will never be able to settle in Australia permanently. If UNHCR agrees to facilitate a referral process for individuals onshore in Australia, we consider that New Zealand can resettle these people without precedent risk for our refugee quota programme."

The resettlement solution has left Rintoul angry about Australia's shirked responsibility for its own refugees, relieved that New Zealand is offering a home to them and frustrated at the time it is still taking for that to happen.

Although confident the New Zealand government will take all 450 people, he said at this rate it could take five years or six years, rather than three.

"The situation gets that much more complicated and that much more difficult for people who are caught up in the bureaucracy of having a place for resettlement, but not being able to get there. It just compounds the suffering that they've been through, creates greater degrees of uncertainty.

"We've got families who came from Nauru to Australia, now some of the children are in high school, they're precluded from tertiary education.

"The hope that those parents had when they originally fled the country where they were being persecuted - hope for their children, for the future - it's been smashed in Nauru and now it's being smashed in Australia...because there's no prospects of resettlement here, and the delays of resettlement in New Zealand."

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