An airline flight carrying 21 Sri Lankan asylum seekers from Nauru landed in Brisbane last Friday, putting an end to the previous government so-called Pacific Solution. The 21 Sri Lankans, approved as refugees, were the last occupants of the detention centre on the world's smallest republic.
This move, pledged before the election by Kevin Rudd, fulfils the new Prime Minister's commitment to end the controversial policy, under which people arriving by boat were sent to Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island for refugee determination.
The so-called Pacific Solution was initiated in August 2001 after the Tampa crisis: the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa rescued more than 400 mostly-Afghani asylum seekers after their fishing vessel sank in international waters en route to Australia. The then Prime Minister John Howard refused to let the group enter Australia and asylum seekers were sent to Nauru for the first time.
Offshore processing centres were set up on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru. The government of the two Nations received millions of dollars in aid in exchange. Virtually every asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat and without authorisation was detained in one of those remote camps.
The Manus Island detention centre has been emptied since the last asylum seeker left in 2004. Nauru was shut down last Friday (the 8th Of February) after the 21 remaining asylum seekers flew to Australia, marking the very end of the Pacific Solution.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) welcomed the end of the policy.
"Many bona fide refugees caught by the policy spent long periods of isolation, mental hardship and uncertainty-and prolonged separation from their families," UNHCRs Richard Towle said.
The policy has been fairly criticised by UNHCR, several NGOs and rights groups and accused of breaching Australian responsibilities under international refugee convention.
Amnesty International has campaigned strongly since the centre was initially opened for an end to the Pacific Solution and for the centre on Nauru to be closed.
"This is the end of a long and fairly painful chapter in Australian asylum policy and practice" UNHCRs Richard Towle said.
The Labor Government however said that it would remain tough on border policy and will use the processing centre on its Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island. However, UNHCR will be careful monitoring of the processing centre on Christmas Island.
"We will be arguing that the kinds of policy responses and practices out on Christmas Island-if people have to be looked at first there-that they should be as close as possible to the procedures that apply to onshore asylum seekers in Australia" Richard Towle said.
- Refile-Australia ends "Pacific Solution" for refugees, Reuters, 7 February 2008.
- Flight from Nauru ends Pacific Solution, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 February 2008.
- Pacific Solution winds up, ABC, 8 February 2008.
- Australia ends Pacific Solution, BBC News, 8 February 2008.