SIX-and-a-half years and close to $300 million later, the Howard government’s Pacific Solution has been set adrift.
Our Airline flight 351 carrying 21 Sri Lankan asylum seekers from Nauru landed in Brisbane at 1.30pm (AEST) today, effectively marking the end of the controversial policy.
The group, now approved as refugees, have been held on Nauru since March last year and were the last occupants of the detention centre built by Australia in the tiny Pacific island nation.
They are expected to make their homes in Cairns, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne.
The controversial policy of keeping asylum seekers in foreign camps was designed to stop them being processed in Australia.
New Immigration Minister Chris Evans welcomed the end of the policy.
“The Pacific solution was a cynical, costly and ultimately unsuccessful exercise introduced on the eve of a federal election (in 2001) by the Howard government,” Senator Evans said.
He said the department had spent $289 million between September 2001 and June 2007 to run the Nauru and Manus centres.
Mark Getchell, from the International Organisation for Migration, which ran the Nauru facility, said there were now no asylum seekers left on Nauru.
“It is the end of an era,” Mr Getchell said.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) welcomed the end of the policy.
“Many bona fide refugees caught by the policy spent long periods of isolation, mental hardship and uncertainty—and prolonged separation from their families,” UNHCR’s Richard Towle said.
“This . . . goes a long way to show Australia as a humane society and in keeping with its international obligations.”
The Pacific Solution was formulated after the Norwegian freighter Tampa reached Australia’s Christmas Island in August 2001 carrying more than 400 mainly Afghan asylum seekers it had rescued at sea.
Then prime minister John Howard refused to let the group enter Australia, and went into a November election campaigning strongly on the issue.
Offshore processing centres were set up on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, the world’s smallest republic.
The Manus Island detention centre has been mothballed since the last asylum seeker left in 2004.
More than 1300 people were held at the Nauru facility, of whom 543 were found to be genuine refugees.
“Resilient and strong”
Robert Lachowicz, the coordinator of the Brisbane-based Refugee and Immigration Legal Service which has worked with Nauru detainees, said resettlement was extremely difficult.
“There are some good support services in Australia, but still there is the mental anguish you have suffered because of the detention and the difficulties you had that made you flee in the first place,” Mr Lachowicz said.
“You’ve got the uncertainty of your new life, usually a new culture and new laws.
“And you’ve got often another long wait to try and bring your close family over to join you if you are here on a permanent protection visa.
“But most of them are extremely resilient and strong.”
The Australian Government is to hold talks with the Nauru and Papua New Guinea governments about the future of the Nauru and Manus facilities and possible aid and development programs.