The viability of Australia’s refugee resettlement options
28 Nov 2016|

The protracted search for a viable resettlement option for recognised refugees on Manus Island and Nauru may be over, with the Australian government announcing it had struck a one-off resettlement deal with the US. But before popping the champagne, let’s further scrutinise the deal.

Previous governments have announced ‘solutions’ to refugee resettlement. The Gillard government’s ‘Malaysia Solution’ was blocked by the High Court in 2011 due to Australia’s inability to ensure that refugees would be afforded adequate protection. Similar concerns scuttled proposals to resettle refugees in PNG, Nauru or Cambodia. Many in Australia have defended those solutions, claiming the problem is refugees’ intransigence and not the proposals themselves. Jim Molan AO, co-architect of Operation Sovereign Borders, said as much during his appearance on Q&A last month:

‘These good people have a choice… the choice of making a life in Nauru or PNG or some other country. The only choice they don’t have is to come to Australia.’

Such thinking fails to acknowledge that a third-country resettlement option must be viable, and it’s been here that previous proposals have failed. As details of the US resettlement plan are finalised and announced over the coming weeks, it’s a good time to reconsider our national perspective on ‘viable’ resettlement.

While the UN Refugee Agency accepts resettlement of refugees in a third country as a solution to displacement, Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits signatories from forcing refugees to resettle in other countries (PDF) where their life or freedom is at risk based on their religion, nationality, political opinions or membership of a particular social group.

In addition to its obligations as a signatory to the 1951 Convention, Australia owes obligations to refugees under various other human rights instruments. The Convention against Torture (CAT), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) all guarantee refugees basic rights including:

  • freedom from torture and other cruel and degrading treatment (CAT);
  • non-refoulement (CAT);
  • respect for human rights without discrimination (ICCPR, ICESCR);
  • right to work and to adequate standard of living including food, clothing and housing (ICESCR); and
  • the right to the highest attainable standard of mental and physical health (ICESCR).

Resettled refugees must rebuild their lives from scratch, facing language barriers and other challenges associated with human displacement, along with the mental health impacts of life-threatening persecution and indefinite detention. If we’re to meet our international obligations, let alone ethical or moral ones, viable resettlement options must have services able to address those vulnerabilities. Australia’s previously mooted ‘solutions’ don’t stack up against that criterion.

PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has admitted that his government doesn’t have the resources to settle refugees from Australia. Even if Australia could contribute to the costs of resettlement, PNG’s capacity to provide essential services is doubtful—developing adequate social security and mental health support is a long-term process. In the meantime refugees would be without the housing, employment opportunities and skills development necessary to build a new life. Refugees currently living in PNG have no access to mental health professionals. Working visas are only issued for a year.

Alarmingly, PNG’s legal framework not only fails to provide adequate protection of refugees, it criminalises certain basic rights. PNG hasn’t signed the CAT. LGBT persons are stigmatised in the community, have no legal protection against discrimination, and male same-sex activity is illegal. Mental health also carries a stigma. Suicide is illegal, and those who attempt to end their own life face jail time. Malaysia has similar legislation. Given the well-documented mental health impacts of prolonged detention, this approach to suicidal behaviour is highly problematic.

Turning to Nauru and Cambodia, there are well-founded concerns over the ability for refugees to access services essential to their livelihood. Nauru has not signed the ICESCR, and its capacity to provide the required social and economic rights is questionable. Mental health services are grossly inadequate, and reports of violent attacks on refugees outside camp confines on both Manus and Nauru raise concerns for their safety in the wider community.

Cambodia shows that money alone won’t facilitate resettlement. The AU$55m provided by Australia to assist in resettlement is of little utility when employment opportunities are limited and corruption widespread. The start-up cash given directly to refugees is equally short-sighted; a ‘viable’ resettlement option is one where refugees are empowered to maintain a sustainable livelihood. One of only two refugees trying to build a life in Cambodia has been unable to find a job. The Rohingya man has received vocational training, but without essential healthcare services, mental and other health problems developed on Nauru have impaired him from gaining work. A second man arrived less than a month ago, and four others saw returning to their countries—where they face fear of persecution—as a better option.

On the face of it the US seems like a viable option. But with many details outstanding we shouldn’t be complacent. For those refugees destined for the US that have family settled in Australia, a key issue is reunification. A refugee’s right to family reunificationunanimously approved by the 1951 Conference of Plenipotentiaries (to which Australia was a delegate) that adopted the final text to the Convention and has been repeatedly affirmed by the UNHCR—is abrogated by the Australian government’s proposed life-time ban on boat arrivals.

The US deal is a welcome opportunity to finally provide a safe refuge to people who’ve fled persecution. Australia’s responsibility now is to ensure that their rights will be upheld.