New Zealand’s government is now in regular conversation with Australia about how to resettle refugees from Australia’s offshore detention regime – a significant step towards a resolution, advocates say, eight years after New Zealand first offered.
Immigration minister Kris Faafoi confirmed to the Guardian that “New Zealand’s offer to Australia to resettle 150 refugees being held offshore still stands” and that “officials continue to explore how this might be implemented”.
A spokesperson for Faafoi’s office said the ministry could not give details of the process “beyond the fact that discussions are happening, and that at the official level, we’re trying to work through what might happen to implement taking refugees subject to the New Zealand government’s usual processes of assessment and screening”.
Conversations between New Zealand ministry officials and their Australian counterparts about the possibility had been happening regularly, Egli ha detto.
“Any refugees considered for resettlement in New Zealand would undergo the same comprehensive assessment and screening that New Zealand applies to all refugees who are accepted under New Zealand’s refugee quota program,” Faafoi said.
Australia’s home affairs minister Karen Andrews confirmed the talks and said the Australian government sought to find “resettlement options … as soon as we possibly can”.
“We’re working through those issues now and we will continue to do so, and of course we will continue to work with the United States about resettlement options there as well," lei disse.
“We’ve made it very clear with New Zealand that there won’t be a backdoor way for these people to be able to go to New Zealand and then return to Australia.”
Nine years after Australia restarted offshore processing, and more than seven years since the last asylum seeker was sent offshore, 235 refugees and asylum seekers remain held within Australia’s offshore islands processing regime: 105 on Nauru and 130 in Papua New Guinea. Those people are no longer, technically, in detention camps, but their movements remain heavily restricted.
According to government figures, 1,223 “transitory persons” are in Australia, brought back from offshore processing islands – mostly asylum seekers medically evacuated from the islands. This cohort may also be considered – by Australia at least – as candidates for resettlement.
Elizabeth Young, an advocate for the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN), said she had met senior New Zealand cabinet ministers to discuss the option. She said those conversations included discussions of the possibility of New Zealand re-extending its offer to bring people from offshore processing, but also the option of accepting asylum seekers in Australia for medical treatment. They could travel to New Zealand under the quarantine-free travel bubble, lei disse, and would not require additional resources to house in managed isolation.
Logistical challenges created by Covid-19 mean New Zealand is well behind on meeting its commitment to resettle 1,500 refugees each year. According to government immigration data, the country had only taken in 177 refugees in the 2020-2021 financial year to April. Nel 2019-20 year, it took 797 – still a significant shortfall.
Funding had already been assigned by the New Zealand government to accommodate its refugee quota of 1,500, Young said – so given current shortfalls, it would not cost the country any extra. “We have the funding, we have the places ready to go," lei disse. “New Zealand could solve Australia’s offshore processing regime in less than two years.”
She said the comments from Andrews, and the confirmation that officials were discussing implementation were a “massive” step. “It’s hugely positive – more than we’ve had since 2013 when the offer was first put forward.”
Australia has repeatedly said it would consider resettling refugees in New Zealand only after its 2016 deal with the US was extinguished.
The US has so far resettled 936 refugees from Australia, and a further 258 have been provisionally accepted. That would bring the number resettled in America to 1,194, close to the deal’s cap.
Australia has also previously said it was reluctant to allow refugees to resettle in New Zealand because, after five years, they could claim citizenship and would be eligible to travel without restriction to Australia: a position belied by the fact that Australia regularly prevents some New Zealand citizens from entering Australia.
Amnesty’s refugee rights adviser Dr Graham Thom said there were 235 people offshore in PNG and Nauru, con più di 1,000 living either in detention or in the community in Australia, “with no certainty regarding their futures”.
“The truth is that currently Australia has no plan to resolve this situation. The time to accept the New Zealand offer is now,” Thom said.
Offshore processing is expensive. The latest figures on the Nauru program show it costs Australian taxpayers more than $10,000 every day for each person held on that island, about $4m a person each year.
Former All Black Sonny Bill Williams said: “After $10bn of taxpayer dollars and eight years of suffering, people deserve some certainty. These are people’s lives we’re talking about. It can’t be a passing comment.”