Australia to pay islands for hosting asylum seekers

Nauru, an island nation spanning 21 square kilometres located on the equator and in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is a desolate place to a foreigner.

It is home to some 10,000 inhabitants who half a century ago were amongst the richest of people on the planet—thanks to large deposits of phosphate that has since been largely mined away.

Much of the proceeds from mining have also disappeared. The islands economy is in desperate need of new business. Some new business may be on its way. 

Manus, an island province of Papua New Guinea, is larger but just as isolated from the rest of the nation state of Papua New Guinea. It could also benefit from isolation.

Nauru and Manus seldom get mentioned in the same breadth. Their isolation from Australia and being a long way away from any major commercial hub makes them ideal places to house asylum seekers.

This fact was first recognised in 2001 by the then Howard Government which created the ‘Pacific Solution’.

Apparently several other Pacific islands nations including Fiji, Kiribati, Tonga, and Tuvalu were also approached to host processing centres for people seeking asylum in Australia.

The Pacific Solution involved shipping those arriving into Australia in search of asylum to distant Nauru and Manus for processing.

The Australian government signed a memorandum of understanding with the governments of Nauru and PNG to accommodate the processing centres. The facilities at these centres comprise of air-conditioned demountable residential buildings with sporting, educational, and recreational facilities.

At the peak in February 2002, the centres hosted a total of 1,544 asylum seekers. The processing centres were closed by the Rudd Government in February 2008.

The processing for refugee status takes anything up to 5 years, costing Australian taxpayers millions of dollars and imposing adverse effects on the physical and mental health of the detainees. 

The processing involves establishing identity of the illegal arrivals, checking their health status  and confirming their eligibility for being issued a protection visa.

Up to the time of closing in 2008, a total of 1,687 people, comprising 786 Afghanis, 648 Iraqis, and 88 Sri Lankans had been processed in Nauru and Manus. Of this total, 70 percent were resettled including 705 in Australia.

Recently revived Pacific Solution

The Gillard Government announced in August last year that it would reopen the processing centres on Manus and Nauru.

Bob Carr, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, announced in December that a total of A$375 million will be reallocated from the foreign aid budget to fund the assistance provided to asylum seekers. At least some of the newly allocated funds for asylum seekers are likely to end up in Nauru and PNG.

How much of this ‘new aid’ will reduce poverty of the people of Nauru and PNG remains doubtful. 

However, the funds will count as official development assistance to the ‘recipient’ nations and the onus will be on them to demonstrate the effective use of the aid. As an Australian taxpayer, I question the legitimacy of the use of foreign aid to fund processing centres. 

Manus and Nauru hosting Australia’s asylum seekers are providing a service for which they deserve payment and not one that is disguised as foreign aid.

Payment for service

The islands billing Australia for providing the service of hosting asylum seekers on their soil has many advantages compared to the existing system. 

The ‘payment for service’ scheme is no different to the islanders charging foreign fishing vessels for fishing in their territorial waters. 

A ‘payment for service’ scheme is transparent, engages the islanders in gainful exchange and could operate within the legal systems of the host nation. 

If competitively tendered, it could also save Australia dollars and the islanders the effort to defend the constitutionality of hosting processing centres on their soil.

A bold plan would be one where families in the islands could be invited to tender for hosting asylum seekers.

For such a scheme to work, islands governments would need to issue temporary protection visas to the applicants from Australia following thorough character checks.

Those failing the tests could be denied entry.  While being resident in the islands, the Australian authorities could process the claims of those with temporary visas.

There is no reason to restrict such a ‘fee for service’ scheme to Nauru and PNG. There are more than one million households within the islands region.

Thus 10,000 asylum seekers will be hosted for every percent of households who volunteer to host asylum seekers. And the number of willing hosts could be larger than the number of places at existing processing centres. 

There are many benefits from a ‘payment for service’ scheme including: (i) asylum seekers being raised in the community thus free from the stresses of being placed in confinement; (ii) the hosts earning income for providing a needed service; and, (iii) the host nation having complete control on those it allows in and on the conditions of entry.

On (ii), payment of A$10,000 per annum for each hosted asylum seeker would amount to a substantial income for the host whilst being cheap relative to current outlays by Australia.

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