Australia's Refugee Archipelago

The scores of Afghan refugees who landed on Nauru in mid-September were dazed for good reason. They had spent a month at sea, and they had expected their journey to end on the vast shores of Australia. Instead they found themselves dumped onto a fly-speck Pacific atoll and herded into a hastily built detention camp called Topside. "Most of them probably hadn't seen the ocean until they started on their epic journeys," says Marissa Bandharangshi, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "And they certainly would never have heard of Nauru."

Topside is part of Australian Prime Minister John Howard's "Pacific solution" --a plan to create a refugee archipelago of detention centers strung out across the South Pacific. The hope is that asylum seekers--mostly Iraqis and Afghans who pay as much as $4,000 per passage on leaky, overcrowded boats leaving from Indonesia--will stay home if they know they will be diverted to places like Nauru. The policy has already won Howard political points at home. But refugee advocates and, increasingly, Pacific nations themselves are blasting Canberra's new closed-door policy as selfish and xenophobic. Says Margaret Piper, executive director of the Sydney-based Refugee Council of Australia: "A number of things the current government has done cannot be described in any way other than racist."

The flow of asylum-seekers from the Middle East and South Asia to Australia has picked up considerably in the last few years. Since mid-1999 about 9,000 "boat people" have landed safely on Australia's isolated northwest coast, often via outlying territories like Ashmore Reef and Christmas Island. Hundreds of others have died en route, among them the approximately 370 people who drowned after their overloaded boat sank in the Java Sea on Oct. 19. Until recently Canberra had tried to deter such crossings by bolstering naval patrols near Indonesia and shuttling refugees into harsh camps--virtual prisons--in the Outback.

Australia toughened its antirefugee stance in August, after its Navy prevented a Norwegian freighter full of refugees plucked from a sinking Indonesian ferry from reaching shore. Those asylum seekers were ultimately diverted to Nauru and New Zealand. Canberra quickly removed both Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef from its "immigration zone," thus denying foreigners landing there the right to make asylum claims in liberal Australian courts. In mid-October Canberra began scouring the South Pacific for more allies willing to take in asylum seekers. "We are not looking to divert the problem," says a spokesperson for Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock. "Our intention is to stop the trade, and overseas centers are part of the strategy."

For Australia's smaller neighbors, that translates into enticing offers of aid. Nauru will receive about $9 million in assistance for accommodating as many as 1,000 boat people. (The money will pay for upkeep, but also to rebuild the island's main power generator and to cover all outstanding medical bills for citizens--mainly senior officials--who have incurred large debts at Australian hospitals.) Papua New Guinea cut a similar deal last month, and Fiji, Palau and Kiribati are pondering aid-for-refugee agreements of their own.

In return these governments are offering some of their least desirable real estate. Topside is surrounded by a lunar landscape of depleted phosphate mines. Fiji is considering a camp for as many as 3,000 refugees at an abandoned leper colony. Kiribati has proposed Kanton Island, a vintage landing strip built on a windswept reef to refuel transpacific airliners in the era before jumbo jets. In PNG officials recently christened a camp on Manus Island, site of a World War II naval base. Last week 225 new arrivals, the bulk of them Iraqis, were so despondent that they staged a short-lived hunger strike.

The Australian deals are limited in scope--six months for Nauru, one year for PNG--but will presumably be renegotiated. In the meantime, refugees at these remote facilities will receive asylum hearings administered by Australian officials or the UNHCR. Those deemed to be legitimate refugees--persons with well-founded fears of persecution in their homeland--are eligible for resettlement in third countries. What hasn't been resolved is where they will go. Canberra wants them resettled elsewhere, saying that granting asylum in Australia would reward their illegal entries. But only about 110,000 resettlement slots in the West open each year, for what the UNHCR estimates are some 13 million refugees. The United Nations and refugee experts say that some of the people sent to the South Pacific temporarily could end up stranded there for years.

Opposition is growing among those host countries as well. Last week Noel Levi, secretary general of the Pacific Island Forum, accused Canberra of creating a "refugee market." In PNG, the Foreign Affairs minister was sacked for opposing Canberra's request to send more refugees--a program supported by the prime minister. In Fiji, where the ruling coalition may approve a refugee agreement with Canberra next week, opposition leader Mahendra Chaudhry accused the government of "succumbing to buy-out tactics" that "compromise our integrity and put a price tag on our sovereignty."

Ultimately, the Pacific solution creates a problem of principle. The UNHCR calls Canberra's methods "inconsistent with the edifice of asylum" and says that "arrangements under which boats carrying asylum seekers are intercepted and taken elsewhere for processing is inappropriate and sets an unfortunate precedent." The Australian policy may be as out of place as the refugees it rounds up.