One of the challenges for the first term of a new Labor Government will be to bring back a bipartisan and humanitarian approach to Australia's dealings with some of the most vulnerable people in the world — refugees and asylum seekers. The task will extend to negotiating new relationships with the Pacific countries contracted to house Australia's asylum seekers and refugees in recent years, in particular the impoverished nation of Nauru.
As a positive first step, the new Rudd Government has announced it will end the controversial and expensive Pacific Solution policy and close the processing centres in Nauru and PNG. After initially supporting the policy's introduction in the heat of an intense election campaign in 2001, the ALP changed its position in early 2002 and has since opposed the processing of Australia's asylum seekers in Pacific countries.
Under the so called Pacific Solution Australia's asylum seekers were warehoused indefinitely in declared Pacific countries, at great expense to Australian taxpayers. Even those assessed to be refugees were not, we were told, Australia's responsibility and other countries were sought for their resettlement.
The Pacific Solution was a game of smoke and mirrors and a solution only for setting up an election win for a government behind in the polls and for distracting from the Howard Government's inability to manage the increasing numbers of asylum seekers arriving under its watch. For the Howard Government, the messy problem of boat arrivals was more easily managed in other countries, out of the Australian public's view.
But while abolishing the Pacific Solution is undoubtedly a good policy decision for Australia, the citizens of Nauru are now facing an uncertain future with the likely associated loss of aid and income.
Over recent years I have made many visits to Nauru to spend time with asylum seekers and refugees. I have also become acutely aware of the different context in which this policy is viewed in a country whose most pressing need, unlike Australia's, is to feed its own people. With that in mind it might be easier for Australians to empathise with the desperate choice Nauru made when agreeing to host the camps.
When members of the current Nauruan Government came to power in 2004 they made an uncomfortable decision to continue the policy they had inherited from the previous Rene Harris led Government. A dependency had been created and the benefits to a poor country were numerous. The Nauru Government must also have feared a potential backlash from the Australian Government if they had withdrawn support for the policy — a daunting prospect for a bankrupt and aid-dependant country.
To its credit the new Nauruan Government did open up the conditions for asylum seekers and allow freedom of movement around the island during daylight hours. Government ministers also made it clear they did not want people left in their country indefinitely, and continued to pressure for people to be resettled once they were found to be refugees.
The Rudd Government's intended focus on strengthening our ties in the Pacific region should now include working closely with Nauru on how they will adjust to their future economic circumstances. Nauru's transition from hosting asylum seekers for Australia needs to be handled sensitively and the country should be seen as the victim of a more powerful Australian Government exploiting a poor nation's dire circumstances.
Australia must continue to provide aid to Nauru but our involvement should extend to more than charity. An increase in work and educational opportunities in Australia and assistance in setting up private sector partnerships could assist Nauruans to maintain their independence and pride. The ongoing reform processes of the current Nauruan Government should also be supported. But never again should Australia ask Nauru or any other country to assist us in avoiding our responsibilities towards vulnerable people.
Under the new Rudd Government preparations are already underway for the resettlement of seven Burmese men who were taken to Nauru more than one year ago. The new Immigration Minister, Chris Evans, has remarked that the men's cases ‘should have been processed some time ago', indicating a move towards a more balanced and sensible approach to refugees and an understanding of their protection needs. Processing of the remaining group of Sri Lankans in Nauru has also begun.
The Pacific Solution will be remembered most of all for the damage it has caused to so many refugees who came to us seeking safety and understanding. Australia turned its back on men, women and children who wanted only a safe haven and recognition of the atrocities and traumatic experiences they had endured. The Pacific Solution will not, and should not, be remembered favourably in our history and we should all be relieved that the policy is about to end.
Susan Metcalfe is a writer and a long term advocate for refugees and asylum seekers in Nauru. Susan has made numerous visits to Nauru over the past few years to support refugees and conduct research for a yet to be completed PHD in Politics.