With the failure of its scheme to resettle refugees in Cambodia and growing concerns about its offshore detention centres, the Australian government is hoping the elusive solution to what has become a policy nightmare might be found in the Philippines.
Asylum seekers who attempt the perilous journey to Australia by boat are currently sent to offshore processing centres on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea or the tiny island nation of Nauru. Under the scheme, even those found to be genuine refugees, often after more than two years in detention, are deprived of the chance to settle in Australia. Instead, they have the option of staying on Nauru, a nation of 10,000 people where prospects for integration and work are extremely slim, or being resettled in PNG or Cambodia.
(Australia's hardline stance towards asylum seekers who arrive by sea contrasts with its generosity when it comes to offering a home to refugees through UNHCR's resettlement programme. Only the United States resettles more refugees than Australia which takes in about 6,000 a year.)
Only a handful of refugees have opted to live outside the detention centre on Nauru amid concerns about their safety there, and just four have agreed to be resettled in Cambodia.
The impoverished Southeast Asian nation recently said it was not eager to accept any more.
The failed Cambodia plan has left Australia increasingly in need of an alternative third country for processing and resettling refugees.
Speaking to reporters on 9 October, Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton confirmed that Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, had discussed a possible deal on refugee resettlement with her Filipino counterpart during the recent UN General Assembly in New York.
But rights groups in the Philippines have attacked the potential deal. Renato Reyes, secretary-general of the left-wing Filipino group, Bayan, and a critic of the government of President Beningo Aquino said there needed to be more transparency about the negotiations. “The Philippines should not be part of such an unethical deal,” he told IRIN. “The Philippines is struggling with its own internally displaced people from (typhoon) Haiyan and from (conflict in) Mindanao. The Philippines has not made much headway in helping these people out.”
Reyes argued that the Philippines, where more than a quarter of the population lives in poverty, is not dissimilar to Cambodia. “Who says the refugees will want to be resettled in the Philippines? It doesn’t really solve the problem.”
Amnesty International has highlighted problems with human rights abuses in the Philippines. “Whilst an active civil society exists in the Philippines and the government has made some efforts to tackle human rights problems, patterns of abuse and a culture of impunity continues,” Amnesty International spokeswoman Ming Yu told IRIN.
But Australia is running out of third country options if it is to retain its policy of offshore processing and resettlement of refugees.
A 2011 High Court ruling threw out a plan to settle refugees in Malaysia due to that country not being a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. However, very few countries in the Asia-Pacific region are signatories to the convention. In Southeast Asia, Australia’s options for third country partners are limited to Cambodia, East Timor and the Philippines.
Meanwhile, allegations of rape, child abuse and mistreatment of detainees at the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres have resulted in escalating protests across Australian cities.
Last Sunday, thousands of Australians marched through capital cities to push for an end to mandatory detention and the closure of offshore processing centres.
On Monday, doctors at a major paediatric hospital rallied in support after their colleagues said they would not discharge children who faced being returned to detention. The state health minister, Jill Hennessy, added weight to the protest by backing the doctors’ stance. "If the staff of the Royal Children's Hospital come to the clinical view that it is not in the interests of those children to go back into detention, then we will support them.”
The same day, a Somali woman who said she was raped on Nauru arrived in Australia for an abortion. Her distressed call to police had aired repeatedly on Australian television.
On Tuesday, in the latest clumsy attempt to control the flow of information to the outside world, Nauruan officials seized phones, laptop computers and other equipment belonging to the Save the Children team on the island in an attempt to trace what had been sent to journalists.
Earlier this month, a team of Al Jazeera journalists attempted to obtain official media visas to visit Nauru. The price of these visas has been set at an exorbitant AUS $8,000 per person, an amount few media organisations are willing or able to pay. As a result, it has been almost two years since journalists have reported from Nauru.
“We were told that nobody had actually applied since the visa price had been set at A$8,000,” Andrew Thomas, the Sydney correspondent for Al Jazeera, told IRIN. “It was only when they (Nauruan officials) realised that we actually had the money for the visas that we received an email saying that our visas were not approved and that all media visas would not be approved.”
While Australian officials continue to deny the extent of the problems on Nauru, a tweet responding to Thomas about the media ban from former spokesman for the Australian immigration department Sandi Logan shone some light on the Australian government’s frustration with its partner country.
@AlJazSydANDREW Hopeless. Always were in my opinion & didn't take advice either. Pits of the Pacific
— Sandi Logan (@SandiHLogan) October 9, 2015
The numbers of asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat are now relatively small. On Nauru, there are currently 653 people in detention, of which 114 are women and 93 are children. Australia maintains that its offshore processing and resettlement policy acts as a deterrent to asylum seekers considering the dangerous sea journey.
New Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is due to meet Aquino at the regional APEC leaders’ gathering in November where the refugee issue is likely to be discussed further. Whether Manila agrees to the proposal or not, it is unlikely that the Philippines will offer the solution that either Australia or the refugees on Manus and Nauru are hoping for.