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The boat stops here

By Humph Applebee - posted Monday, 22 July 2013

Prime Ministers Gillard and Rudd both favored visionary announcements leaving the devil of the detail for others to work through. The "PNG Solution" is the latest in a long line as indicated in the ministerial submission reprinted below. The primary author has since been transferred to the Todd River Pipeline Authority after the Minister commented "Let's leave the negativity to Tony Abbott".


Purpose: To advise you on issues relating to the government's plan to "Stop the Boats" by transferring asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea and processing and resettling them there.


Background: A total of 46,819 asylum seekers have arrived in Australian waters since the government relaxed processing requirements in 2009. A further 1,100 are believed to have drowned at sea. On 18 July 2013 the Prime Minister signed an agreement with the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, the terms of which would prohibit any person arriving unlawfully in Australia by boat to be resettled in Australia. Arrivals by boat from 18 July not eligible for resettlement in Australia will need to be held in Christmas Island pending the enhancement and creation of new capacity in PNG, at least for processing of claims and in due course for resettling successful applicants. As the PM acknowledged, the full details of implementation and the full cost of the agreement are yet to be determined. The agreement is to be reviewed after twelve months.

Issues: A key issue for immediate resolution is whether the Immigration Department or the Customs and Border Protection Service is to be the lead agency for implementation. Prime Minister &Cabinet is clearly a prime mover but usually leaves implementation to lined departments. Foreign Affairs also has some responsibility for what can be regarded as an international agreement. Other key issues are indicated under separate headings below. They indicate the need for phased implementation where different elements are progressed and eventually merged rather than a sequential implementation which could take years to complete.

Policy: Historically Australia has granted permanent residence to asylum-seekers who are found to be refugees. That automatic link was broken by the temporary protection visas (TPVs) issued by the previous Coalition government as part of the so-called Pacific Solution and restored when the present government removed TPVs. The deterrent effect of TPVs was seriously undermined by lack of political will combined with particular court decisions which reflected the interests of Australian residents in particular applications. This underlines the extent to which pressure on the regular Humanitarian Program and volume of irregular arrivals are symptoms of demand for family reunions which can no longer take place under the Permanent Migration program. Action is being taken through direct advertisements and other media coverage to ensure people smugglers and other networks overseas and in Australia are immediately aware of the new arrangements. In addition rewards of up $200,000 are being offered for information which leads to the successful conviction of any people smuggler.

The success of the plan depends on the practical options which remain to asylum seekers. Most if not all may be deterred from risking a dangerous sea voyage only to end up in limbo on Christmas Island or in due course in PNG. They would still need to determine their best course of action in new circumstances. Whether or not they meet the criteria specified in the UN Convention, all can be said to have made huge investments in quitting their countries of origin. Not many are likely to return voluntarily without some further incentive. Indonesian support for a regional processing centre in Java is predicated on burden sharing by Australia and other receptive countries of the kind the PM intends to invite to a regional conference. It is not clear to us how the agenda of that conference will interact with the conference the President of Indonesia has said he intends to convene. In any case, presumably a processing centre cannot be established until those conferences have taken place.

In the longer term, consideration will have to be given to whether a person who has been processed and resettled in PNG and is ineligible to resettle in Australia is barred from entry to Australia under any other migration category. If for example the person is eligible to visit as a tourist or student or any other form of temporary entry, we will need to ensure that these conditions are met and we avoid an increase in the already large numbers of people who are in Australia unlawfully at the expiration of their visas. Another consideration for the longer term is what is to be done with asylum seekers whose applications are rejected and who either refuse to return to their former countries or whose countries refuse to accept them and no third country can be found to take them. (That was a known failing of the Howard Government's Pacific Solution.)

In recent years the number of irregular arrivals granted refugee status has been deducted from the formal humanitarian program, recently increased from 14,000 to a proposed 20,000 a year. Consideration needs to be given to whether that practice continues if as the PM has indicated we move to an annual intake of 27,000.


These and other policy issues will be the subject of further submissions.


As demonstrated by the arrival of one boat since the announcement, an immediate requirement is to add capacity on Christmas Island which separates pre 18 July asylum seekers from post 18 July asylum seekers. We are likely to find this compounds the difficulties we already have with accurately identifying the identities of individuals.

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About the Author

Humph Applebee is the nom de plume of two public servants who are full of courageous advice.

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