Just after winning office, the Rudd Government made headlines with the welcome news that it would be scrapping the Howard Administration’s controversial Pacific Solution.
On Friday it was reported that the policy had finally been "set adrift", as a flight carrying the last 21 Sri Lankan asylum seekers being held on Nauru landed in Brisbane.
But has the policy really been sidelined?
newmatilda.com spoke to Immigration Minister, Senator Chris Evans, who confirmed that a major departure from past policy is not in fact on the table under the Rudd leadership.
While it’s true that the so-called Offshore Processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island will be closed and the practice of settling refugees in other countries will come to an end, the other aspects of the "Solution" – the excision of some 4000 islands, including Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Ashmore Reef, from the migration zone; and the interception of boats before they reach Australian waters – will continue.
The Rudd Government will also maintain a policy of mandatory detenion for unauthorised arrivals and continue with the construction of a new detention centre on Christmas Island.
In 2002 the Howard Government set the wheels in motion for the new maximum-security centre, which is due to be completed in April this year at a total cost of almost $400 million. Original plans put the centre at a 1200-bed capacity but that has since been scaled back to 400 beds, with space for another 400 people if needed. All new unauthorised boat arrivals will be processed at the centre.
There are only two asylum seekers currently left on Christmas Island, which means this multi-million dollar centre could stay empty for quite some time. The two are Vietnamese nationals with criminal histories who cannot be returned to Vietnam, according to a spokesperson for the Department.
The contract for the detention facility went to Baulderstone and Hornibrook, an engineering and construction company. Leaked plans of the centre in 2006 revealed a maximum-security facility with closed circuit television in individual rooms, electric fences and electronically controlled doors to enable centre-wide lockdowns. Senator Evans visited the near-finished facility late last month, en route to Jakarta where he met with the Minister for Law and Human Rights, Andi Mattalatta, to discuss people smuggling and regional border security. He decined to comment on whether security at the facility would be toned down.
The other aspect of the Pacific Solution that looks set to stay under the Rudd Government is the costly border patrols on Australia’s northern borders.
In 2006, the Pacific Solution’s Operation Relex II, the navy operation targetting unauthorised boat arrivals coming from Indonesia, was consolidated into Operation Resolute, which is still operational. But the question that remains to be answered by Senator Evans is what he plans to do if there is a new asylum seeker boat detected from Indonesia.
Operation Resolute is a joint defence and customs operation commanded by the Border Protection Command (BPC), which is coordinated out of Customs House in Canberra. A spokesperson for the BPC told newmatilda.com that, "In the event of a boat from Indonesia, the boat would be intercepted. Our role is to control, detect and respond. Everything else is a question of policy and a decision for the Government."
The Minister’s office said that "Each boat requires specific attention depending on a range
of circumstances such as the place of interception or arrival. Operational
arrangements cannot be discussed, however, at all times the first priority is
for the safety and welfare of all on board."
A media release issued on the Minister’s return from Indonesia suggests it will be business as usual for boat disruptions in the region: "Indonesia and Australia would continue to work together and with other countries in the region to strengthen their borders against people smuggling, terrorism and other forms of trans-national crime."
"We discussed the success of these arrangements in
protecting people from being drawn into risky people smuggling ventures," the Minister said.
If the Pacific Solution really was a "cynical, costly and ultimately unsuccessful attempt by the Howard Government to circumvent Australia’s international obligations," as Senator Evans claims, he would be wise to scrap the whole thing.
This article has been udated from its original form.
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