Australia: sending refugees to Kyrgyzstan?

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Cecilia Diemont is a recent graduate of King’s College London (MA ‘International Peace & Security’, War Studies/Dickson Poon School of Law). She tweets @ceciliadiemont

Yes, Kyrgyzstan, the country bordering Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, China and Tajikistan, and no, this is not a joke.

Apparently intent not to backtrack on its 2012 promise that asylum seekers attempting to get to Australia by sea would ‘never make Australia home’, the Australian government has reached new heights of desperation/creativity.

Asylum seekers found to be refugees in the Australian-run detention centres on the Pacific Island state of Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) need to be resettled, and Australia seems to be running out of options of where to send them.

While reports the government is considering Kyrgyzstan as a so-called ‘third country’ resettlement option have not been officially confirmed, it would not be the first time countries with no logical connection to Australia have been considered. A controversial $55 million deal in 2014 gave refugees the voluntary option of resettling in Cambodia. To date it has been taken up by only four individuals, one of which has since opted to return to his countries of origin (i.e., the very place from which he was fleeing persecution in the first place).

In October the government confirmed that they were in dialogue with the Philippines about possibilities of resettling asylum seekers found to be refugees on Nauru or Manus there. Despite the economic incentive offered by Australia ($150 million spread over five years), the Philippines rejected the proposal a few weeks later, saying it was ‘challenged to meet the needs of its own people’ without having to permanently resettle Australia’s refugees.

The Pacific states of Nauru and PNG, on which Australia currently hosts two offshore immigration detention centres, have both been reluctant in agreeing to provide permanent resettlement. While Nauru has made clear it does not want to resettle refugees permanently, PNG recently announced that it would resettle ‘a selected number’ over the coming years. Given the past threats and bleak prospects of integrating into the community and building a safe and prosperous life on the island, it remains unlikely that many will take up the offer. While Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton promoted PNG as a ‘dynamic nation with a growing economy’, his own government’s travel advice warns Australians to exercise ‘a high degree of caution’, to be aware of ethnic disputes that may ‘quickly escalate into violent clashes’, and of opportunistic sexual crimes that take place across the country in an ‘atmosphere of lawlessness.’ A promotional video shown to refugees now held on PNG promises that refugees who take up the offer will live safe and successful lives in a country with ‘great opportunities.’

Resettlement in third countries has been justified as part of a regional burden sharing mechanism. While it was already a far stretch to claim that Cambodia, PNG or Nauru should bare any responsibility for Australia-bound refugees, sound arguments for Kyrgyzstan or the Philippines are nonexistent, and sustained efforts to outsource Australia’s responsibility to refugees surely will have a lasting impact on the country’s reputation as a friendly, human rights respecting nation. If Australia is to prove itself worthy of a seat on the UN’s Human Rights Council, it must radically change its immigration policies for asylum seekers who arrive by sea. Until it does so, one may wonder whether Australia is ready for a leadership role in advancing human rights protection.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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