Howard's 'Pacific solution' is neo-colonialism
BY SARAH STEPHEN
The United Nations' declaration that the 1990s would be the international decade for the eradication of colonialism was supposed to usher in a 21st century free from colonial enslavement. Yet in September of the first year of that new century, Prime Minister John Howard dreamed up a plan for a chain of refugee detention camps through the small island-nations of the Pacific — and ushered in a new form of neo-colonialism.
Howard has made it clear that he is determined to maintain his hastily put-together "Pacific solution" for the next term of government and even claims it is a great success, a sign of "renewed cooperation" in the region.
But the islands are already filling up and many governments are showing little enthusiasm, and even some opposition, to take any more.
Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean, is currently housing 540 asylum seekers following the navy's interception of a number of boats carrying refugees, but the island is only to be a transit point.
Nauru is now housing around 700 asylum seekers, almost three times the number it initially agreed to. Ninety have been interviewed, but no announcement has been made on the state of their applications.
New Zealand has agreed to take 150 refugees, but has ruled out taking any more.
After accepting 216 asylum seekers in October, the Papua New Guinea government is still deliberating on whether it will take more at the remote facility on Manus Island.
On November 23, Fiji's cabinet rejected a proposal to house 1000 asylum seekers. Kiribati and Palau have been approached to take asylum seekers, but haven't yet got the facilities to house them. Tuvalu was also approached but said no.
The UN administration in East Timor was approached to take some of the Tampa refugees, but Kofi Annan sternly ruled it out.
Pressuring Pacific Island nations to take asylum seekers has been described innocuously by Australian government ministers as "burden-sharing", a convenient regional solution to a regional problem.
But that's not how the policy's critics see it.
Max Lane, the chairperson of the newly formed Action in Solidarity with the Asia Pacific (ASAP), condemns the government's double standard: "Australia cannot accept refugees arriving on its shores but it appears Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Nauru, Kirabati and even Tuvalu must. Of course, if the Australian government really valued these neighbours of ours, it would not be insisting on and bribing them to do things that it is not prepared to do."
The Australian government claims that each country, regardless of its wealth, its capacity and its role in the world, should take equal responsibility for the world's refugees.
"The reality is that none of the rich countries want to solve this problem", says Lane bitterly. "No rich country takes more than they can avoid. Putting more and more refugees into prison camps on the Pacific Islands is ... telling those countries to take them permanently. Even after the [UN High Commission for Refugees] declares them refugees, many will not find countries that will take them."
PNG and Nauru were both assured that this would not happen — Nauru President Rene Harris has even stated that Howard gave him a personal assurance that no-one would be left behind.
But then, on November 12, Howard back-flipped, saying that asylum seekers whose refugee applications were refused "could well remain in those countries".
Australia's objective, the government subsequently claimed, was still to resettle all those sent to Pacific detention centres. But given that not all asylum seekers will be granted refugee status, and that there will be few countries willing to take the asylum seekers, who are seen internationally as Australia's responsibility, the islands will face a situation where either Australia resettles them or they remain where they are.
There is a profoundly unequal power relationship between Australia and the countries of the Pacific region. Australia, along with New Zealand, dominates Pacific countries economically and politically, long after most of these countries gained their independence.
Economically, Pacific dependence is especially stark.
Through the South Pacific and Regional Trade Agreement (SPARTECA), specified exports from South Pacific Forum countries receive duty free and concessional entry to Australian and New Zealand markets.
In Fiji, this has encouraged the establishment of sweatshops which now employ 19,000 Fijians making clothes largely for the big Australian retail chains.
Forty-eight percent of Fiji's imports come from Australia. Australia is also Fiji's largest export market, with a third of its exports arriving here as clothing, gold, textiles and footwear.
A similar agreement, the PNG-Australia Trade and Commercial Relations Agreement, operates with Papua New Guinea. Australia is PNG's largest market, with 19.7% of the country's exports coming here in 1999. Primary products dominate — crude oil, gold and coffee are the largest.
Australia is also PNG's largest source of imports, 52.8% in 1999. Over half of imports from Australia are manufactured goods. PNG is Australia's seventh largest market. This unequal trade directs a flow of wealth overwhelmingly to Australia's advantage.
Australia dominates most sectors of the Pacific Islands' economies: not only is it the major trading partner, but a major investor and a major source of foreign aid.
Australia provides $300 million in aid to PNG each year, 50% of Australia's total bilateral aid. Fiji was allocated $22.3 million in aid in 2000-01. Australia is Vanuatu's largest aid donor, providing $18.1 million in 2000-01. The rest of the Pacific islands received combined aid of more than $130 million in 1999-2000.
This economic relationship is being used now as leverage: since the Tampa crisis, Australia has offered bribes and incentives, and implied threats, to try to entice Nauru, PNG, Fiji, Kiribati, Palau and Tuvalu to take asylum seekers the Howard government still refuses to.
The October 22 Sydney Morning Herald reported on an investigation into the diplomatic behind-the-scenes manoeuvres at the height of the Tampa crisis.
On August 30, the day after the Tampa stand-off began, defence minister Peter Reith contacted Nauru's President Rene Harris to ask a favour. The Herald reported, "The soft-sell blended financial inducements, personal flattery and a suggestion that Nauru could earn international respect by being part of a humanitarian 'Pacific Solution'."
Harris recounted to the Herald that he contacted Reith the next day to say his country would take the Tampa refugees, but asked Reith to inform him before Australia made the announcement.
"As things turned out", the article explained, "Howard announced the arrangement within a couple of hours, not giving the Nauru government time to inform its people in advance."
Most found out by word of mouth or via foreign satellite TV, causing substantial discontent.
Well aware that Nauru is facing an economic crisis, Reith made a lightning visit there on September 9 with the promise of a $20 million financial assistance package, a 20% boost to the island's gross domestic product.
Harris quipped to the Herald that, on top of funding the needs of the asylum seekers, "there had been advance 'snooping' by Australia to draw up a list of assistance measures, including $10 million worth of diesel fuel to end chronic electricity blackouts".
Facing an uncertain future, Nauruans are dependent on imports for most of their food, water and fuel for electricity. There is no viable industry apart from phosphate mining, which has virtually ceased. The 11,000 residents face eventual mass relocation.
The irony is that Australia is in large part responsible for the situation Nauru is in. Under Australian colonial control from 1945 to 1968, Nauru's economy and environment were devastated by 90 years of intensive mining of phosphate, which has left the central 90% of Nauru a wasteland. Australian business was part of the phosphate-mining consortium and most of the phosphate was exported to Australia as fertiliser.
In 1989, Nauru took Australia to the International Court of Justice with a demand for compensation for environmental damage from phosphate mining. Nauru won the case and was awarded $107 million.
Threats and promises
Back-door threats and promises weren't used on small and desperate Nauru only.
To facilitate negotiations with Fiji, on October 5 the Australian government lifted economic sanctions imposed following a military coup in May 2000.
In October, Labour opposition leader Mahendra Chaudry criticised the offer to pay Fiji $20 million to take 1000 asylum seekers, calling it a shameful display of cheque-book diplomacy. The Fiji administration delayed making a decision for six weeks, reflective of substantial internal opposition.
Revealing the Australian government's impatience, and quoting unnamed "diplomatic sources", the Agence France Presse on November 22 reported that Australia was pressuring the Fiji government to take asylum seekers for processing by linking negotiations on Fiji "garment quotas" to the decision on boat people.
A spokesperson for foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer said the claims in the AFP report were "complete rubbish".
The spokesperson conceded that the agreement called SPARTECA-TCF — which involved giving concessions on tariffs for textiles, clothing and footwear made in Fiji — was being reviewed but hastily added, "There's certainly no connection between that review and Fiji's decision on the asylum seekers".
Unwilling to be as compliant as the Australian government would have liked, Fiji was threatened with a stick rather than rewarded with a carrot. The stick appears to have had the wrong effect, however, with the announcement on November 23 that the deal was off. Opposition from political parties and tribal chiefs was cited as the reason for rejecting the plan.
Meanwhile, the Australian government offered PNG around $20 million to take 220 asylum seekers in September and followed it up with an October request to take another 1000.
Facing substantial opposition from within the government, PNG still has not made a decision. In early November, Prime Minister Makere Moruata ordered his foreign minister, John Pundari, to resign after Pundari leaked a statement to the Australian high commissioner voicing his opposition to the proposal.
Despite being at the front line of the navy's war on boat people, the 1500-strong population of Christmas Island has remained consistently critical of the Australian government's actions.
At the height of the Tampa stand-off, several hundred people staged a demonstration demanding that the refugees be allowed to land on the island and have their claims for refugee status processed.
There is resentment at the militarisation of the island which harks back to the island's colonial past. In 1987 the Hawke Labor government attempted to depopulate the island so that the Australian military could use it as a base in the south-east Asian region.
The government dismissed the elected Christmas Island assembly and sent federal police to quell "civil unrest" among workers at the phosphate mine, the island's only industry, who were striking in protest at the sacking of their elected leaders and the rumoured closure of the mine.
Following the arrival of 330 asylum seekers to join 227 already housed in the Christmas Island sports hall, the secretary of the Christmas Island Workers Union, Gordon Thomson, told the November 14 Sydney Morning Herald, "It's good that they're being brought ashore. We're happy to see people brought off these unsafe, unhygienic boats. But there are concerns on the island because nobody wants to see it turned into a permanent prison for refugees. We want their human needs met and are looking forward to the government quickly processing their refugee applications and moving them on to the mainland."
The government has shipped in demountable buildings to house the additional asylum seekers. A leader of the Chinese community, which comprises 60% of the island's population, told the Herald he feared the situation would become like Hong Kong in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the Vietnamese "boat people" crisis was at its height.
ASAP convenor Max Lane slammed Australia's exploitation of the region through its "Pacific solution".
"The Australian government is not only contemptuous of its Pacific and south-east Asian neighbours' sovereignty by trying to buy it on the cheap. Howard also shows no concern for the huge problems that intense social contradictions and economic crisis pose for societies that are poverty-stricken, often as a result of economic policies imposed from outside."
He also believes an alternate, better solution would be relatively easy to achieve, though certainly unpalatable to an anti-refugee Howard government.
"It is summed up in two words, once fundamental to Australian immigration policy: assisted passage. Fly the refugees to Australia and help them settle. As for the refugees already in Australia, close the detention centres and help them settle. Help rather than hinder."
The populations of the five smallest states of the Pacific combined would only half-fill Sydney's Olympic Stadium. The islands they live on would fit inside the Sydney metropolitan area. Their economies are highly dependent on the rich countries and are in permanent crisis. Yet the Australian government continues to mount the argument that these tiny Third World nations should "do their bit" to help ease the global refugee problem, as if Australia is already doing its bit.
Australia's responsibility is to offer an open door to the populations of all Pacific islands. As Nauru becomes uninhabitable, as Tuvalu sinks beneath the waves, the Australian government is morally compelled to offer the islands' populations refuge in this country.
The "Pacific solution" is an attempt to relinquish Australia's responsibility, as the wealthiest country — by far — in the region, to respond to cries of suffering and desperation of refugees.
The Pacific solution should be scrapped, Australia's intake of refugees — especially from the Middle East — should be immediately increased, substantially undercutting the people smugglers' trade, and those asylum seekers still in Indonesia should be brought to Australia. The voices calling for such an approach are growing louder.
From Green Left Weekly, November 28, 2001.
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