Setting the stage for community detention in PNG and Nauru

The media has been preoccupied in recent days with the question whether asylum seekers sent to PNG and Nauru under regional processing arrangements will, as advertised, be resettled in those countries if determined to be refugees.

That’s not the most pressing question.

While it suits the government’s deterrence objective to talk in terms of resettlement in PNG and Nauru, we can’t be sure how much local resettlement will actually take place. It is quite clear that the governments of PNG and Nauru do not envisage permanently resettling significant numbers of refugees within their borders. They have said as much, here and here.

The real unknown is whether, or rather to what extent, asylum seekers will be parked in community-based accommodation in PNG and Nauru, either while awaiting determination of their status or pending transfer to another country for resettlement.

The regional processing MoUs previously in effect with PNG and Nauru said that refugees would be transferred out of PNG and Nauru to other countries for resettlement ‘within as short a time as is reasonably necessary’, subject to a suitable delay consistent with ‘the need to ensure, so far as is possible, that no benefit is gained through circumventing regular migration arrangements’.

The government signed updated versions of both MoUs just before going into caretaker mode. The text of the new PNG MoU is here and that of the new Nauru MoU here. Almost the only material difference between the new and the old MoUs is that the new ones include provisions relating to local resettlement and community detention. Paragraphs 12 (PNG) and 11 (Nauru) contain language on community detention; paragraphs 13 (PNG) and 12 (Nauru), language on local resettlement.

We know that PNG and Nauru have limited capacity to process protection claims and that it will take time for this capacity to be strengthened with Australian aid. We know that the Australian government is in no hurry, as a matter of policy, to see asylum seekers’ claims processed. This means it might be up to a few years before the average asylum seeker’s protection claim is processed. Thus resettlement is a very distant prospect.

What is a much more present option is community detention for people awaiting determination of their refugee status. As can be surmised from a reading of Box 2 on page 40 of the August Budget Statement, and as has now been confirmed in the text of the new Nauru and PNG MoUs, community detention is on the table. It is articulated in both MoUs as a policy the two host governments might implement, whereas processing centres are presented as something on which they have already agreed.

It isn’t clear when community detention might begin to be practised—perhaps when processing centres are full, perhaps sooner. Nor is it clear to whom it might apply. Would it be limited to families with children, with a view to avoiding some of the risks they face in institutional detention? Or would it be applied more broadly, to people deemed not to present a flight risk, so as to reduce pressure on detention facilities?

Two things, however, are clear.

First, it seems the government is determined to sheet home the costs associated with supporting asylum seekers in community-based accommodation to the aid program, despite the high probability that meeting such costs will not constitute aid under OECD rules. The August Budget Statement has already allocated $236 million over four years for costs associated with ‘unauthorised maritime arrivals living in community based arrangements’ in PNG. For timing reasons alone, it is hard to believe that this relates only to people deemed to be refugees who consent to be resettled in PNG.

Second, placing asylum seekers in community-based accommodation is likely to lead to tensions and conflicts for precisely the reasons given by Solomon Islands Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo when he yesterday announced Solomon Islands would not participate in regional processing arrangements. These are also the reasons why many in PNG and Nauru don’t support resettlement. Recent discussions about an ‘open-camp proposal’ in Nauru are indicative of likely community concerns. (Update, 8 August 2013: See also this in-depth piece by Jo Chandler on the experiences of Muslims in PNG.)

One way to avoid the possible adverse consequences of community detention would be to create artificial and isolated communities of asylum seekers—ghettos. However, these would be little more than informal detention facilities, and it would be unwise to assume that their informality would create an opening for the use of Australian aid to meet any associated costs.

The proposed placement of asylum seekers in community settings in PNG and Nauru, pending processing, raises much more immediate concerns than the distant prospect of resettlement. Both the social and the aid implications of this course of action need a lot more consideration than they are currently getting. In particular, the two host governments should clarify their policies on community detention.

Robin Davies is Associate Director of the Development Policy Centre.

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Robin Davies

Robin Davies was appointed Head of the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in September 2017. Previously, from 2013, he was the Associate Director of the Development Policy Centre and from mid-2014, concurrently an Honorary Professor at the Crawford School at ANU.


  • Robin,

    Is it your understanding that the $236m over 4 years for ‘unauthorised maritime arrivals living in community based arrangements’ in PNG is additional to the amounts already to be diverted for the support of asylum seekers in Australia?

    In the 2013-14 budget the Government said: ‘To ensure predictable planning and management of the ODA budget, the Government will cap expenditure from the existing ODA funding envelope in any one year at $375 million.’

    • I am quite sure the answer is yes. However, the answer doesn’t matter greatly because it is estimated that only $13 million of the $236 million will be spent in 2013-14. At this point we don’t know what, if any, further funding might be allocated from the aid budget to meet in-Australia asylum-seeker costs in 2014-15 and beyond.

      Stephen Howes and I included a question about this in an earlier post about the $236 million allocation in the August Budget Statement. We noted that the government’s more thoroughgoing offshore processing policy will, in theory, eliminate all costs associated with asylum seekers living in the Australian community and awaiting determination of their claims, other than those associated with people who arrived before the regional ‘solution’ was announced. Thus one would assume that at least some of the $375 million appropriated to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) in the May budget is no longer required to meet domestic costs and could have been reallocated for spending in PNG to cover the estimated $13 million expenditure requirement in 2013-14. However, there is no indication in the August Budget Statement that the $236 million allocation for community-based arrangements in PNG includes any funding from the $375 million previously allocated. In fact the statement says that the $236 million ‘has been offset from a reduction in AusAID’s budget’, whereas the $375 million, while reportable as ODA, forms part of DIAC’s budget.

      There’s a separate and much larger question about the fate of the two amounts of $375 million transferred from AusAID’s budget to DIAC’s in December 2012 and May 2013. As I have commented in the past, no policy basis for determining these amounts was ever made public and the amounts seemed larger than might have been expected if the relevant expenditures were to meet the requirements of ODA eligibility. DIAC’s Secretary admitted in early May, during Senate Estimates hearings, that DIAC was likely to underspend against the 2012-13 allocation. We don’t know whether and to what extend they did underspend, or what the consequences might have been for the 2012-13 final ODA outcome. If DIAC is going to fall short against the 2013-14 target, and can estimate how far short, the appropriate course of action would obviously be to return the excess funds to AusAID in sufficient time to allow them to be programmed in 2013-14.

  • Thank you for your on-going commentary on the recent Rudd government asylum seeker policies. One of the main points you appear to be making is that this is policy on the run and it is not clear that the government (Australian as well as the Pacific island governments) have a plan. My question is about one small point you make in this post. Why do you write that it is not in Australia’s policy interest to speed up the time taken to process asylum claims?

    • I don’t know if I’d characterise this as simply a case of policy on the run. There’s probably an element of that. The shift from processing in neighbouring countries to resettlement and community detention in those countries appears to lurch a little beyond the recommendations of the Houston report. The latter called for the implementation of ‘processing options outside Australia for the determination of protection claims of those who arrive by irregular means’. However, in its discussion of processing arrangements with PNG and Nauru it did not propose local resettlement (or community detention). In the post above, though, my concern is more that the features and implications of the policy have not been canvassed openly enough.

      In response to your specific question, I didn’t say above that it’s not in Australia’s policy interest to speed up the time taken to process asylum claims. I said, ‘We know that the Australian government is in no hurry, as a matter of policy, to see asylum seekers’ claims processed’. That’s a statement of fact about current policy, as embodied in the ‘no-advantage’ principle first articulated in the Houston report. As has often been pointed out, nobody knows exactly what average processing times would be consistent with this principle because there is in fact no clear point of comparison — but the average will doubtless be measured in years. Aside from its assumed deterrent effect, slow processing obviously also confers the pragmatic advantage of deferring difficult decisions on where and how to resettle those found to be refugees.

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