Here's a Switch — Australia Hires Other Nations to Take Its Boat People

By David North on August 28, 2013

Woodrow Wilson spoke of the American states as "Laboratories for Democracy".

The general idea was that other entities could watch as one or more American states tried out innovative governmental techniques and programs.

Such experimentation is going on all the time in the immigration field, but it is done by other nations. Some of it is admirable, some of it is scary, and some of it is somewhere in between.

I will let the reader make a judgment on Australia's most recent innovation, which is to hire other nations to receive and resettle refugees who had been aiming for Australia, but who had been headed off by Aussie authorities. If nothing else, the new program is certainly creative. For more on the policy, see this recent report.

This is the situation: Tens of thousands of primarily Muslim migrants from Iran and Afghanistan flee from those countries and head to Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, on their way toward Australia. They regard themselves as asylum seekers or refugees, but, like unauthorized aliens elsewhere in the world, they hire smugglers or snakeheads to provide the illicit boat passage to Australia.

Few of them make it to Australia directly. In recent years, most of them have been captured (or maybe rescued) at sea and placed on one of Australia's own off-shore tropical islands, such as Christmas Island, which lies between Indonesia and Western Australia. (Think of a miniature version of our Guam.)

Australia does not want this population, but it has no ability to ship them back to either Indonesia or Iran, neither of which wants them either.

Indonesia, incidentally, comes off very badly in this story. It neither blocks the entries of the migrants, nor does it help round up the snakeheads, most of whom are Indonesians. It seems to be content to let some of its most loathsome people make money out of the business. And it does not seem to feel any need to provide any services to its fellow Muslims.

Until recently, Australia had, essentially, punted. It warehoused many of the newcomers on Christmas Island, and then, when the facilities there overflowed, set up " processing" camps in two island nations that are dependent on Australia financially.

One of these is the biggest island nation in the South Pacific, Papua New Guinea (PNG). The other is tiny Nauru, once the richest nation in the world (because of a now-exhausted supply of phosphates mined for fertilizer) and now a poverty-stricken rocky domain about six times the size of New York's Central Park, about one-seventh the size of the District of Columbia.

The idea was that a prolonged stay in these "processing" camps would discourage future waves of boat people; some would be persuaded to return home, a few would be recognized as genuine refugees and allowed to go to Australia, but most would be left in limbo. It did not work very well and the boat people kept coming. (Some of the migrants on Nauru killed themselves.)

Recently, the new Labor Party administration in Australia changed the rules; would-be illegal migrants to Australia would not be processed for possible settlement in that country; they would all be resettled on either Nauru or Papua-New Guinea. Australia is paying both nations to play this role.

It is too soon to know whether this will stem the flow, but it I doubt that any of these Asian migrants will actually resettle in the two nations, for quite different reasons. I have been to neither, but learned a lot about them in the 1990s when I was the Washington correspondent for the late, Fiji-based newsmagazine, Pacific Islands Monthly. I often read and wrote about Nauru, talked with officials on that island, and read about PNG.

The latter nation, unlike most of the Pacific island nations, has a well-deserved reputation for violence, murder rates are high; parts of its mountains and jungles are yet to be explored, and every once in while there is another story of an encounter with a stone age tribe that had never seen a white man.

Prior to the new arrangement with Australia, Papua New Guinea's immigration policies were anything but welcoming. I was told that the naturalization process was more like the UK's annual Queen's Honours list (for medals and knighthoods); you needed a lot of money and a lifetime of service to PNG before citizenship was awarded.

The danger on Nauru is boredom. There is just about nothing there. The once lush island has been cleared of 95 percent or so of its soil for the phosphate beneath, so most of it resembles a non-rehabilitated West Virginia strip mine, a moonscape. Instead of conserving its mineral wealth, Nauru wasted it on a corrupt government, a vanity airline, and terrible overseas investments.

It will be interesting to see how this Aussie experiment works out.

The United States over the years has sometimes used its off-shore holdings to process refugees on the way to the mainland, but has never kept anyone in those places very long. After the fall of Saigon, many of the Vietnamese were cared for temporarily on Guam, a practice later used for some Kurds fleeing from Saddam Hussein.

In the latter instance, we initially placed the Kurds in empty officers' quarters on a then under-used military base; this set up the refugees for a major disappointment when they were resettled on the U.S. mainland, usually in considerably less attractive, low-rent, urban locations.

The Australians will have no comparable problem: tents, not officers' housing, will be the order of the day in PNG and Nauru.