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The Norfolk Island solution


'Norfolk Island Solution' by Chris Johnston shows mourners in Australia overshadowed by an aeroplane evoking the shape of a Christian crossWhile the Federal Government continues to cast around for other Pacific nations and Cambodia to take in refugees held on Manus Island and Nauru, it has one ready solution right on its own doorstep. It is a place that has been calling out for help to counter its falling population and its prolonged economic crisis. It is an Australian territory and one that is already receiving Australia's financial support.

The locale with the dwindling population is Norfolk Island, positioned 1600km from the New South Wales coast. The former penal colony turned tourist haven has fallen on hard times. The island's population has shrunk from a peak of 2601 in 2001 to 1795 at last count. Meanwhile the island's economic dependence on tourism rendered it particularly vulnerable to the global financial crisis of 2007–8. It has yet to fully recover.

Australia has been financially propping up the Norfolk Island government to allow it to meet its debts. It provided $4.5 million in 2012 and $5.4 million in 2013–4 to ensure the island's sustainability. In exchange the Australian Government has negotiated a reform package with the self-governing island's Legislative Assembly to pull Norfolk Island out of its economic malaise.

The package, titled the Norfolk Island Road Map, took effect as the Territories Law Reform Act (2010). It recommends restructuring the island's economy away from dependence on the one industry of tourism by encouraging diversification. This is to be implemented by lowering barriers to immigration to Norfolk Island and selecting immigrants with skills in trades, agriculture, the professions, business, and management.

The Norfolk Government did its bit. Norfolk's then Minister for Immigration David Buffett set up a working party in 2012 to prepare a campaign 'to grow the island's population' through immigration. Target groups were to be sea-changers, self funded retirees, professionals, 'fly in and fly out workers' and business investors.

But just last month, Australia's Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development, Warren Truss told Federal Parliament that: 'It is clear that the problems facing Norfolk Island are getting worse, the financial position of the island is deteriorating and the population continues to decline.'

This is where the island's desperate need for a population boost and the Abbott Government's determination to place refugees anywhere other than the Australian mainland are a perfect fit.

The island has lost 25 per cent of its male population aged 25 to 50 since 2011 — a largely similar demographic to Australia's detained asylum seeker boat arrivals.

This is by no means to advocate that the Government should dump large numbers of asylum seekers on the small island. But Norfolk Island does offer one small but practical and humane solution to the resettlement of a manageable number of refugees. They could be offered a place on Norfolk Island on the basis of any skills needed by the island as it strives to turn its economy around.

Among the asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru, and the estimated 2000 in detention centers and community detention in Australia, are those with business experience and trade skills, teachers and doctors — skills not generally available to the island's population because of the lack of training institutions.

Reza Berati, the 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker tragically killed on Manus Island in February, was a qualified engineer. He would have had much to offer Norfolk Island given that infrastructure reform is a key concern of the Road Map. Truss described the condition of the island's infrastructure as 'dated, run down and fragile'.

For the last eight years, pregnant Norfolk Island women have been unable to give birth on the island but have had to be flown to hospitals on mainland Australia, using the expensive Medivac service. Any other island resident with a life threatening illness also has to be evacuated to mainland hospitals. The island's Legislative Assembly was forced by the inadequate medical service on the island to set up a Medivac fund in 2006.

Overseas trained doctors who arrived in Australia as refugees have proven to be valuable additions to many a country hospital and community around Australia. Norfolk Island with its scenic beauty, safe environment and friendly people would be an attractive proposition to doctors among the refugee/asylum seeker population.

The island's population includes Pitcairn Island descendants. They would need to be reassured that their cultural identity would not be eroded through arrivals from diverse backgrounds. However Norfolk Island already hosts significant numbers of Fijian workers without any dilutions of that identity.

The proposal outlined will not solve all Norfolk Island's economic problems nor prove a resettlement solution to large numbers of refugees, but it could be a small step in the right direction for two costly situations facing the Australian Government.

Andra JacksonAndra Jackson is a freelance writer and award winning refugee issue specialist.

Topic tags: Andra Jackson, asylum seekers, Norfolk Island



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Existing comments

Why not let assylum seekers benefit all parts of Australia with the skills they bring by letting them settle anywhere in Australia?

Lisa Richards | 01 August 2014  

Good idea Andra. Building a detention centre on Norfolk Island would be great for stimulating the island's economy whilst allowing 'offshore' processing to continue out-of-sight and out-of-mind of the mainland population.

Jacque | 01 August 2014  

Aren't pregnant woman prevented from flying right before giving birth?

brett | 02 August 2014  

Not sure if this is appropriate but my gut tells me that Asylum Seekers would benefit from spending their first year of citizenship in regional areas as a sort of 'cultural boot camp'. This doesn't mean they should change their beliefs but indeed it will give them valuable insight into our own culture.

Islander | 02 August 2014  

Jacque, you have mis-read the article. Nowhere does the article mention or advocate building a detention centre of Norfolk Island. It proposes allowing refugees to live on Norfolk and contribute to the community as part of the community, as Australian residents. It is the antithesis to keeping people in detention with its acknowledged impact on depression and mental illness.

andra jackson | 02 August 2014  

Pregnant women are not medivaced out - they travel on normal flights 2 weeks ahead of due date. My 2 grandsons, ages 4 and 7, were both born on the island by C-section. Otherwise your article is well-reasoned and stated, although for various reasons I doubt the proposal would gain acceptance here. Nevertheless, we are a welcoming and tolerant community.

Mary Christian-Bailey | 02 August 2014  

There is not a lack of skilled personnel on Norfolk nor skilled people willing to go to Norfolk. It is a lack of employment opportunities which is forcing people to leave. If you are talking about resettling skilled immigrants, I am not sure that adding more people without improving the opportunities is much of a solution. I also don't think that the current asylum seeker problem is one of resettlement. Resettling them anywhere in Australia seems to have been taken off the table completely according to Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott.

Ryan | 02 August 2014  

Sounds like a good idea, however you will find that Norfolk Island is an external territory of Australia therefore it is considered a part of Australia! It isn't an offshore centre.

Brendon | 02 August 2014  

I am a descendant of a convict (carpenter) who was sent to Norfolk Island in 1788 and I have travelled to the island several times partaking in family reunions. I can see the benefit of skilled migration but migrants of a different culture would not fit in to life on such an isolated place and could create divisions in the population.

Pat | 04 August 2014  

what a great idea solving two problems at once stimulating the economy and giving the refugees a more civilised lifestyle

pamela byrnes | 04 August 2014  

Norfolk Island as a penal colony AGAIN! What have we learnt?

Peter Goers | 04 August 2014  

Discussions should be held with Norfolk Islanders and their approval or not given. It is not their problem to fix.

Noeline Champion | 04 August 2014  

Andra, I wrote to the Minister last October , after a 10 day sojourn on the island, asking him to consider open community living for the ASIO refused refugees, who like Ranjini and her boys are doomed to indefinite immigration detention, and Villawood Detention is NO fit place for children to grow up in. His officials provided the usual pat answer...

Frederika Steen | 04 August 2014  

I think Pat summed up the feelings of those with a historic link with the place. There was an interesting article in the Australian last week about a lady with family (grandparents) on the island who wanted to settle there with her son. Because of regulations (tell any Australian about "regulations" ROFL) it is not easy for her. I suspect the remaining, ageing islanders want to keep their Island in the Sun to themselves. A good suggestion, Andra.

Edward Fido | 04 August 2014  

Andra, unless you were detained there, how would you compel someone to remain on Norfolk Island? Or you simply advocating that an asylum seeker need only transit through Norfolk Island before ultimately being assured of Australian welfare entitlements, residency and citizenship?

Jacque | 04 August 2014  

Would the assylum seekers get Australian benefits? Norfolk Islanders don't.

Ian | 05 August 2014  

Good suggestions there - especially re skilled workers/Doctors - BUT would they be in detention or be free to travel to Australia from Norfolk Island? I doubt very much if Australia would allow that & we don't want people here feeling they are imprisoned & unable to leave if not happy.

Joseph | 05 August 2014  

Great article Andra, as a resident we welcome any suggestions that could stimulate our economy in these trying times. I agree with Pat and her comments that skilled workers could benefit us but exposing a small isolated community to such a diverse range of different cultures could impact us greatly on a social level. Food for thought ,what about Lord Howe Island who if nobody knows is just off the East Coast and closer to the mainland than Norfolk .

Vickie Douran | 05 August 2014  

Edward, you may have misunderstood the 'Australian' article. Australians are free to live in Norfolk Island. The idea, while it has merit, would NOT be allowed under an Abbot government, being a Territory under the authority of Australia. 'Out of sight, out of mind' is the mantra.

Brett | 06 August 2014  

Andra, what a brilliant idea, I did visit Norfolk Island a few years ago for a writers festival and was surprised to see its good infrastructure, for a small community, and the enterprise of its people instituting farm tourism, coffee tourism and all sorts of enterprises that Timor-Leste (where I am now living) could certainly learn from, yet the exodus of young people of working age was a worry. best wishes Helen

Helen Hill | 07 August 2014  

Interesting idea, but what does the NI population think of becoming more multicultural? I'd like to see asylum seekers housed normally anywhere in Australia - along with some conditions- while their claims are processed.

Sue Jacka | 08 August 2014  

Thank you, Brett. Not sure I misunderstood the article. I believe the problem was the lady wanted a separate house and the local Council was a bit stingy with releasing land. Apparently that was the problem.

Edward Fido | 09 August 2014  

With respect Edward, I think you may mean Lord Howe Island. The land on NI is freehold and can be sold as the owner wishes. The NI parliament has no say in this matter. (To Australian and NZ citizens that is). Kind regards Brett

Brett | 11 August 2014  

Why not let assylum seekers grow Medicinal Herb. Bonus to everyone!!! lol

Maddog | 27 August 2014  

Having been to norfolk island abput 9 times so far i believe that moslems should not be allowed to settle there. It is a devisive religion that will never assimilate while wanting to take over the christian world when they could not build a similar society in there own countries.. How will tourists get accomodation wnd seats on planes competing with thm. Bad move, leave the devision to the real islanders only

ken newman | 07 May 2016  

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