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New Zealand to take in hundreds of asylum seekers held in detention

The Nibok refugee settlement is seen on Nauru in 2018. (Jason Oxenham/AP)
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Australia has accepted a nearly decade-old offer that would allow New Zealand to resettle hundreds of asylum seekers that Australia has held at offshore processing centers on the island nation of Nauru — a policy that has come under criticism from human rights groups.

Since 2013, Australia has redirected people arriving by boat without visas to the detention camps on Nauru, a Pacific island nation around 2,000 miles from Australia’s shores, or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Australia also maintains a policy that prevents arrivals from ever resettling in Australia.

The same year, New Zealand’s then-Prime Minister John Key offered to take in 150 of the detainees for three years. Since then, Kiwi leaders have reiterated the offer, including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern: “We remain ready and willing to help,” Ardern’s office said in 2018.

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Australia has rebuffed the offer, saying that maintaining its hard-line immigration stance is a deterrent for future undocumented, and dangerous, sea journeys. The Aussies have also voiced concern that refugees brought to New Zealand would travel back to Australia for permanent settlement.

New Zealand Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi in a Thursday statement said he was “pleased that Australia has taken up the offer,” and glad that New Zealand is able to provide “resettlement outcomes for refugees who would otherwise have continued to face uncertain futures.”

Even as Australia accepted the new policy, Australian officials reiterated their strong border policies.

“This arrangement does not apply to anyone who attempts an illegal maritime journey to Australia in the future. Australia remains firm — illegal maritime arrivals will not settle here permanently. Anyone who attempts to breach our borders will be turned back or sent to Nauru,” Australian Minister for Home Affairs Karen Andrews said in a statement.

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The Australia-run offshore processing centers have been controversial. Human rights groups said they constitute an international law violation and have denounced the centers’ conditions. Human Rights Watch in 2016 said refugees on Nauru suffer neglect and inhumane treatment — and even said the “government’s failure to address serious abuses appears to be a deliberate policy to deter further asylum seekers.”

Around 112 refugees remain in Nauru and 105 in Papua New Guinea, according to the Refugee Council of Australia. Its data shows that 3,127 people have been sent offshore since July 2013 — with around 1,100 brought to Australia for temporary purposes and 993 settled in the United States. Australia announced in October that it would end its detention deal with Papua New Guinea, though its arrangement with Nauru would remain.

Rights groups have sounded the alarm of a mental health crisis on Nauru. The Refugee Council of Australia said that experts described people transferred to Nauru as “among the most traumatized they have seen,” and Doctors Without Borders has also reported widespread severe mental health conditions, including self-harm and attempted suicide.

One 23-year-old Iranian refugee set himself on fire in protest of conditions in Nauru in 2016, in front of three Canberra-based United Nations refugee agency officials. He died in a hospital two days after, and his partner has sued the Australian government for negligence. The same week, on the same island, a 21-year-old Somali asylum seeker set fire to herself.

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