The Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) made a submission to the inquiry into strengthening Australia’s relationships with countries in the Pacific region which is undertaken by Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. In this submission our primary focus was on two countries that Australia’s refugee policies impacted the most: Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Since the re-introduction of offshore processing policies eight years ago, RCOA has been closely following their impact not only on refugees and people seeking asylum subject to offshore processing, but also on local communities, civil society, Australian and local service providers and advocates. A trip to PNG in late 2019 complemented our understanding of the impacts of offshore processing policies.
In that trip, our team had the opportunity to engage with a significant number of refugees and people seeking asylum as well as church organisations, NGOs, advocates, government decision makers and international organisations based in Port Moresby. This submission focuses more on the situation in PNG because of our own first-hand experience and because of the relatively easier access to this country by journalists, advocates and NGOs, compared to Nauru.
The Terms of Reference of this inquiry are primarily focused on Australia’s Pacific Step-up. However, we believe that the Pacific Step-up cannot be analysed without considering the influence of offshore processing policies, given the length of the time these policies have been in place and the significance of their impact on the internal politics of Nauru, PNG and the Pacific region.
We argue that Pacific Step-up is and will be undermined by continuation of these policies. The Pacific Step-up presents an opportunity for Australia to strengthen its leadership role in the Pacific region but we cannot do so if we continue to ask the poorest members of our Pacific family to do the hard work for us, disrupting their infrastructure, social cohesion and governance in the process. The continuation of offshore policies further damages our relationships with Pacific nations and our reputation in the region, creating the risk of other players filling the gap we have created.
RCOA recommends that the Committee considers the damage that Australia’s offshore processing policies have caused to our relationships with Nauru and PNG and to our standing in the Pacific region. We recommend that these policies end, replaced with policies which comply with Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention.