MELBOURNE, Australia – After years of refusing to give in, the Australian government announced on Thursday that it had accepted an offer from New Zealand to resettle a number of refugees they were currently or previously detained in its much-criticized offshore system. detention centers.
The scheme – to take in 150 refugees a year for three years – was first offered in 2013 by John Key, the then Prime Minister of New Zealand, to Julia Gillard, his Australian counterpart. It came after Australia introduced a policy that prevented those arriving by boat from ever settling in the country, detaining them on Nauru, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
Human rights groups considered the arrests a violation of international law.
It was not immediately clear why the Australian government changed its mind. Over the years, Australia had suggested that allowing the scheme would only encourage more people to make dangerous sea crossings to try and enter the country. The government had also raised the possibility that former refugees who became New Zealand citizens might eventually try to settle in Australia. All refugees entering New Zealand are put on the road to citizenship.
Kris Faafoi, New Zealand’s immigration minister, said on Thursday: “We are delighted to be able to resettle refugees who would otherwise have faced an uncertain future.” He added: “New Zealand has a long and proud history of refugee resettlement, and this arrangement is another example of how we are delivering on our humanitarian international commitment.”
Under the new scheme, the 150 places will come from New Zealand’s total annual refugee quota of 1,500 people. Each person will be screened by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and subject to the same procedure as other people seeking asylum in New Zealand, Mr Faafoi said in a statement.
Refugees can already enroll in the program, which will likely have a duration of about 12 months, lawyers said.
Australia has detained more than 3,000 refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus. About 112 people remain on Nauru, while hundreds of others have been temporarily moved to the Australian mainland for medical and other reasons.
The detention centers have attracted the attention of news media around the world and human rights groups have cited the brutality of the conditions under which the refugees live.
“We are talking about extremely harsh conditions,” Graham Thom, the refugee coordinator at Amnesty International Australia, said of life in the offshore centers. “There were all kinds of reports of assault and assault, harassment and, again, suicides because of the mental and physical health damage.”
In 2016, a 23-year-old Iranian refugee on Nauru died after setting himself on fire during a visit by United Nations refugee agency officials in an apparent protest against Australian policies. Within a week, a 21-year-old Somali refugee set herself on fire on the same island, sustaining critical injuries.
Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian refugee and award-winning writer who was held in a detention center on Manus Island until its closure in 2017, became a prominent voice for the hundreds of people exiled on the island.
dr. Thom suggested the Australian government had turned around in part, because “the length of time and cost” of the detentions had become too onerous. Housing the 112 people on Nauru cost Australian taxpayers nearly $220 million every six months, he said.
“Things like that have started to weigh on the government when there is clearly budgetary pressure elsewhere,” he added.
Elizabeth Young, an advocate for the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network based in New Zealand, said of the government’s turnaround: “It wasn’t until Peter Dutton quit his job as Home Secretary that it was really talked about for the first time, publicly. , as a real possibility.”
In a statement, Karen Andrews, who succeeded Mr Dutton last year, adhered to the government’s hardline on illegal immigration. She said that no one who had wanted to travel illegally to Australia by boat should be allowed to settle in the country.
“Australia remains steadfast – illegal maritime arrivals will not settle here permanently,” she said on Thursday. “Anyone who tries to break our borders will be sent back or sent to Nauru.”
Abul Rizvi, a former deputy secretary of the Australian Immigration Service, said there was little indication that New Zealand would become a pathway for asylum seekers to eventually settle in Australia. It will take refugees many years to become New Zealand citizens, at which point most will have jobs and connections within that country, he said.
“The New Zealand labor market is currently very robust – unemployment is well below the Australian unemployment rate,” said Dr. Rizvi. “Having come to Australia you will not have access to any form of social support if you are a New Zealand citizen. What would make them come to Australia?”
He said the current Australian government had extended the situation.
“The only reason they could have done this for so long is because they thought political milestones came from it,” he said.