Saturday, April 13

Australia agrees 450 refugees can be resettled in New Zealand, nine years after deal first offered | Australian immigration and asylum

Up to 450 refugees from Australia’s regional processing centers will be resettled in New Zealand over the next three years, after the Coalition belatedly took up a long-standing agreement struck more than nine years ago.

Up to 150 refugees a year will be able to go to New Zealand, under the deal announced by Australia’s home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, and the New Zealand immigration minister, Kris Faafoi, on Thursday.

The arrangement is open only to refugees in Nauru or those who are “temporarily in Australia under regional processing arrangements”. It is not open to those who are “engaged in other third country resettlement pathways”, such as the arrangement Australia has with the US.

Amnesty International said there were 112 refugees on Nauru, and another 1,168 in Australia for medical treatment, who the charity said would be eligible for resettlement under the deal.

The resettlement arrangement was struck more than nine years ago, under then Prime Minister Julia Gillard in February 2013. Labor lost office at the federal election later that year, and the deal was not taken up by the Coalition until now.

The Coalition repeatedly argued that accepting the deal might encourage a resumption of asylum-seekers attempting to travel by boat to Australia.

In 2018 the then home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, said taking up the offer “would be a pull factor at this point in time”. The same year the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said the government was “very concerned that that could risk this thing opening up again”.

In 2019 the Morrison government introduce a bill to ensure those resettled would never be able to gain a visa to travel to Australia – which was seen at the time as a precondition for the Coalition taking up the New Zealand offer – but this legislation never passed the parliament.

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On Thursday, Andrews said that “Australia’s strong border protection policies had not changed”, and the resettlement plan would not apply to people who attempted to come to Australia in future.

“Australia remains firm – illegal maritime arrivals will not settle here permanently,” Andrews said in a statement on Thursday. “Anyone who attempts to breach our borders will be turned back or sent to Nauru.”

Faafoi said his country was happy to take the refugees.

“New Zealand is very pleased that Australia has taken up the offer to resettle up to 150 refugees annually for three years,” he said.

“We are pleased to be able to provide resettlement outcomes for refugees who would otherwise have continued to face uncertain futures.”

The Australian Labor party’s home affairs spokesperson, Kristina Keneally, said the announcement was “just another pre-election promise to protect inner-city Liberal seats”.

The shadow assistant minister for immigration, Andrew Giles, said Morison’s previous “scare-mongering about the alleged consequences of taking up this offer have been proven utterly baseless”.

“It’s hard to imagine, given his former role as immigration minister, a more humiliating backflip from any Australian politician,” Giles told Guardian Australia.

“It’s a relief, but it’s nine years too late. We should all think about the costs of that – the costs to the individual refugees but also the cost to us as a nation.”

The Australian Greens’ immigration spokesman, Nick McKim, said the deal was “a blessed, belated relief”, but said it took far too long for the Australian government to accept New Zealand’s offer.

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“The last decade of offshore detention has been a dark and bloody chapter in our country’s history, and its bipartisan foundation remains a national shame,” McKim said in a statement.

Amnesty International Australia’s refugee adviser, Graham Thom, said the belated acceptance of the deal meant that “people have had years of their lives taken from them pointlessly”.

“Sadly the 104 people still trapped [in Papua New Guinea] fall outside the scope of this deal and solutions will still need to be found for them,” Thom said.

The prominent refugee advocate Craig Foster said the announcement was a “small step to recovering Australia’s humanity and there is much work ahead”.

“I thank everyone raising their voice around Australia for a commitment to basic decency, our high profile ambassadors, Jacinda Ardern, and say well done to Scott Morrison on finally taking the right action,” Foster said.

“It’s just the start, Scott, there are many more steps required to dismantle this beastly system.”

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had long been calling on the Australian government to take up the offer.

The UNHCR regional representative for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, Adrian Edwards, welcomed Thursday’s announcement, but said: “For the refugees and asylum seekers, the prolonged uncertainty of their situation has taken an enormous toll.”

Edwards said the UNHCR was not a party to the arrangement, but because of the “compelling humanitarian circumstances” had indicated its in-principle readiness to facilitate the process of resettlement referrals to New Zealand.

Edwards hinted that New Zealand may be working on further arrangements to resettle people from PNG, who were excluded from Thursday’s announcement.

“As refugees and asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea have not been included UNHCR and New Zealand have agreed to work separately on referrals of eligible individuals from there,” Edwards said. “We are grateful to New Zealand in this regard.”

The New Zealand Green party said the resettlement should be in addition to the country’s existing refugee quota.

“While we are delighted that Aotearoa New Zealand’s long-standing offer to resettle refugees from Australia is finally being fulfilled, it is only happening within our annual intake of 1,500 refugees,” the party’s human rights and refugee spokesperson, Golriz Ghahraman, said.

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