Papua New Guinea’s refugee track record and its obligations under the 2013 Regional Resettlement Arrangement with Australia

Detention of persons Human rights International law Refugees Right of asylum Australia Papua New Guinea

This paper examines Papua New Guinea's track record in assessing and resettling asylum seekers, its current obligations under the 2013 Regional Resettlement Arrangement, and the sustainability of this arrangement.


In the lead-up to the Australian Federal Election in September 2013, public attention focused dramatically on Papua New Guinea (PNG) in terms of the joint PNG–Australia Regional Resettlement Arrangement, the subject of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed on 6 August 2013. In short, Australia would transfer asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat after 19 July 2013 to PNG where their claim for refugee status would be assessed, under PNG law, and those found to be refugees would be resettled in PNG ‘and in any other participating regional, including Pacific Island, states’. (Nauru is the only other current participating regional state, with Cambodia considering resettlement of asylum seekers at the time of publication.) While the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Act 2012 provided for assessment of asylum seekers by PNG, it was the August 2013 Regional Resettlement Arrangement (mentioned as the 2013 Arrangement) that provided for resettlement in PNG, of asylum seekers determined to be refugees. In accordance with the 2013 Arrangement, the full cost of implementing the arrangement in PNG, that is, transfer, assessment, and resettlement, would be met by Australia.

PNG has a track record related to the assessment and resettlement of asylum seekers. The discussion paper begins with a brief outline of PNG policy responses to West Papuan asylum seekers from neighbouring Indonesian Papua. It focuses on the permissive residence system (part of a PNG ‘Limited Integration’ policy) offered to West Papuan refugees living at the former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) resettlement site at East Awin in Western Province since 1997. Limitations of the permissive residence permit, particularly issues related to eligibility and permit renewal, illustrate challenges faced by the PNG government and bureaucracy to design and administer a visa system. PNG’s track record of assessing and resettling West Papuan asylum seekers since 1984 is looked at against the terms of the 2013 Arrangement, which requires PNG to determine the refugee status of asylum seekers transferred by Australia to the offshore processing centre on Manus Island, review negative determinations, and resettle in PNG those determined to be refugees.

The second section considers PNG’s obligations under the terms of the 2013 Arrangement. In relation to status determination, an efficient and procedurally fair determination process requires legislation i.e., domestic refugee law, and an effective immigration bureaucracy. It can be argued that neither of these elements were present at the time of the 2013 Arrangement. However, at the time of publication of this paper in mid-2014, some status determinations and a review process had been announced. In relation to resettlement, ongoing disagreement by the PNG government over the terms of resettlement (which refugees are to be resettled, how many refugees will be resettled) threatens to undermine the terms of the 2013 Arrangement. Australia has underwritten the costs of implementing resettlement under the Arrangement, although the details are not explicit. Nor are details available about any social planning being undertaken for the resettlement of refugees. The author takes up UNHCR’s charge of a ‘xenophobic phenomenon’ in relation to the reception of non-Melanesian refugees in PNG, and offers some context. It is argued that social planning that works towards minimising inter-community tension is critical to resettlement.

The 2013 Arrangement is subject to annual review by the Australian–PNG Ministerial Forum. The sustainability of the Arrangement in terms of legal challenges and security issues is the subject of the third section. Responding to the announcement of the first status determination decisions at the time of publication of this paper, the conclusion summarises some of the major issues related to PNG’s responsibilities under the Arrangement: procedurally fair assessment and review processes, and resettlement planning.

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