The Australia-Papua New Guinea Refugee Resettlement Agreement

By W.D. Reasoner on July 21, 2013

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has just announced a unique agreement with the government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) in which boat people interdicted on the high seas headed for Australia to seek asylum will instead be shunted to processing camps in PNG. If determined to be legitimate refugees, they will be resettled there, instead of Australia. Already the hue-and-cry against Rudd’s policy has begun by immigrant advocacy groups in Australia.

There is no doubt that Australia faces a major problem with asylum-seekers coming by sea, and prior attempts to curb the traffic have not been fully successful. Official documents and reports outline two significant facts that are worth contemplating in regard to the Australian experience:

  1. Many of the asylum-seekers come from the Middle East and Central Asia — Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, etc.
  2. Indonesia is the key, final transit point from which the boat people embark, transported by their Indonesian smugglers, and efforts by Australian authorities to work with Indonesia in curbing the smuggling by prosecuting the smugglers have not been particularly effective.

Faced with these facts, Rudd has made a pragmatic decision that, although already under attack by pro-immigrant groups, is in strict accord with U.N. treaties, which oblige the parties to a policy of non-refoulement (non-return) of refugee- and asylum-seekers until their claims have been adjudicated. It also provides a mechanism by which those found to be legitimately seeking refuge/asylum will be provided a place of resettlement.

The dichotomy of opinions in Australia, for and against the government's policy, is eerily reminiscent of the deep divide between pro- and anti-open borders advocates here in the United States. For instance, one such advocacy group, the Refugee Action Coalition Sydney, has long objected to the government's policy of treating human smuggling as a crime, and even complained that the Australian Federal Police policy of seizing the conveyances used to transport humans results in the use of leaky, substandard boats that put the smuggled aliens at risk.

That's probably true, but it’s naive to think that if smugglers were given their intercepted boats back, they would treat the aliens they transport any better. When being chased or surveilled by the authorities, they would simply be pitching their transportees into the shark-infested water from high speed "cigarette boats" of the type often used to smuggle narcotics, instead of from rust buckets. After all, people-smugglers are not inherently nice folks; they are the most virulent type of free market capitalists whose cargo happens to be human beings. The profit motive, and nothing else — certainly not humanitarian concern — dictates their actions.

One often gets the feeling, where matters of immigration are concerned, that many of those in the advocacy groups, whether in the United States or Australia or elsewhere, are among the privileged elite who, never having experienced deprivation, nonetheless feel it is their right and obligation to dictate to others how such matters should be settled — a kind of liberal nouveau noblesse oblige.

Thus, in the case of the recent agreement, these groups object to using PNG as the place of resettlement. But let's consider U.N. treaties again for a moment. One of the guiding principles of international refugee law is that individuals who are fleeing persecution should seek refuge or asylum at the first reasonable opportunity. Most of the people fleeing are Muslims. They are transiting through Indonesia, a relatively stable nation that also happens to have the largest majority-Muslim population in the world. And yet, none of these people seek asylum there. How and why is that? What gives them the intrinsic right to insist that their one and only place of refuge is the Land of Oz?

What is wrong with resettlement in PNG, admittedly a still-developing nation, but one with great promise and a willingness to accept these people to their shores? And how about the underprivileged native population already in Australia, including most especially the indigenous peoples who, like American Indians, are all too often on the bottom of the educational, economic, and social ladder. Where is their voice?