Way forward on offshore processing remains clouded despite millions spent
The torrid dilemma has dogged the Pacific Solution from its earliest incarnation in the Howard years to Julia Gillard’s eventual embracing of the policy.
Successive governments have struggled to explain what responsibility Australia bears for asylum seekers detained in camps run and paid for by Australia but operating under the legal jurisdiction of other nations.
Hunger strikes, assaults, reports of suicide or the slow processing of asylum claims are regularly magnified by complaints about conditions in the camps – and the often blurred lines of responsibility between the host nation, private contractors and the country that foots the bill.
A challenge magnified because Papua New Guinea and Nauru are each bedevilled by corruption and have a very recent history of breakdown in the rule of law.
PNG leader Peter O’Neill ignored a supreme court ruling that his rise to power was illegal before the 2012 elections, resulting in a dangerous standoff during which time the country had two prime ministers, two police chiefs and two governors-general.
The cause of the latest violence is yet to be established, but as recently as October police and the military in PNG were reported to have clashed outside the Manus Island camp.
In Nauru, the chief justice is still barred from returning to the country after the government stripped his visa, and legal chaos on the island last month resulted in the resident magistrate being deported under a retrospective law.
The violence on Manus could easily have been Nauru, where a riot by asylum seekers in July caused an estimated $60 million in damage.
Dining halls, kitchens, electricity generators and accommodation blocks, all shipped in from Australia, were destroyed.
A group of disaffected Salvation Army staff previously based on Nauru quickly branded the riot an ”inevitable outcome from a cruel and degrading policy”.
More than 100 asylum seekers on charges stemming from the riot now face a long delay for trial.
The paradox is that despite the fact that Australia has spent millions on offshore processing, its political influence in the region has been diminished.
Former foreign minister Alexander Downer warned before Labor’s reboot of the Pacific Solution that the policy gave PNG considerable leverage, because it had done Australia a favour.
But with both political parties in Australia bound together, the latest outbreak of violence will not end offshore processing.
The debate now centres on provision of the best outcome.
Keeping everything in house – the logistics of building camps, trucking in food, posting guards, everything known as garrison services – would go far beyond the expertise available inside the immigration department.
”If you have offshore processing, you have to outsource,” said Greg Lake, who until 2013 was a manager at the Nauru detention centre.
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