Campaigners have welcomed Australia's acceptance of a long-standing deal from New Zealand to resettle hundreds of refugees detained for years in offshore camps in the Pacific. It finalizes an agreement signed nine years ago, when Australia was trying to deter record numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat.
New Zealand’s offer was made in 2013, when Canberra said asylum seekers who came by sea would never be resettled in Australia. The deal was delayed because of a 2013 election that installed a new center-right Australian government.
The new government opposed the New Zealand resettlement plan because ministers saw it as a backdoor into Australia for detainees held in remote camps because of shared residency rules with New Zealand.
The agreement has now been activated after nine years.
It will allow up to 450 refugees to be resettled in New Zealand over the next three years. Australia says it will only apply to migrants who are already in detention, not to those who attempt an “illegal maritime journey” in the future. New Zealand says the deal reflects its humanitarian spirit.
Andrew Giles, Australia’s shadow assistant minister for immigration, says the move is an embarrassment for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who was immigration minister in 2013 and had long opposed the deal.
“This is an absolutely humiliating backflip,” he said. “It should not have taken nine years and that is the other big thought in my mind; the cost to those individual lives and the cost to all of us of this pointless, cruel intransigence by Mr. Morrison.”
Eligible migrants will be screened by the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR.
Australia sponsored two offshore processing camps. One, on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, closed in 2019.
More than 100 refugees remain on the tiny Pacific republic of Nauru.
About 1,100 migrants formerly held in the Pacific camps are now in Australia on temporary visas.
Australia’s deal with New Zealand will not cover them all, and UNHCR has said it hopes there would be “new impetus” toward finding “compassionate and lasting answers” to their resettlement.
Refugee campaigners have said while the New Zealand deal was “welcome news for people in limbo in Nauru.” it has highlighted “the absurdity” of Canberra’s refusal to allow them sanctuary in Australia.