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Government backflips on NZ refugee offer

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (right) has offered to resettle 450 refugees from Australian detention (Image by Dan Jensen)

The Australian Government's flip on the settlement of asylum seekers in New Zealand highlights the flaws in our tough refugee policy. Dr Abul Rizvi explains possible reasons for the Coalition's change of heart.

AFTER NINE YEARS of telling us New Zealand’s offer to resettle some of the refugees in offshore processing could not be accepted, the Government has announced it has reached an agreement for NZ to accept 150 refugees per annum over three years.

This will start with the remaining refugees on Nauru and subsequently other refugees in Australia who originally arrived by boat.

But why the backflip on an issue the Government has used for years as a vote winner?

For the past nine years, the Government has argued the NZ offer could not be accepted for two main reasons.

Firstly, it argued resettling refugees in NZ would restart boat arrivals.

Secondly, because of the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement, refugees resettled in NZ would soon secure their objective of resettling in Australia and people smugglers would use this fact to restart boat arrivals.

A quick examination of how former Prime Minister John Howard and former Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock responded to a very similar offer from NZ in the early 2000s confirms there was very little evidence supporting either of these arguments.

After the Tampa incident in 2001 and the establishment of offshore processing and boat turn-backs, the NZ Government accepted 150 Afghan and Iraqi refugees — 66 from Nauru and 84 from Manus.

In resettling these refugees in NZ, Howard and Ruddock expressed no concerns this would restart the boats.

Indeed, Ruddock gradually resettled the vast bulk of the other refugees who were processed in Manus and Nauru in Australia. Within a little over two years, Manus and Nauru processing centres had no more refugees.

And as the boat turn-back policy remained in place, there were no successful boat arrivals until this policy was abandoned by the Rudd Government in 2007-08.

When these facts were in the past put to Defence Minister Peter Dutton, he argued times had changed. But at no stage did he explain how times had changed such that Ruddock could resettle refugees in NZ and Australia without restarting the boats, but he could not.

The acceptance of the NZ offer this week confirms Dutton’s arguments were without foundation.

Ruddock also at no stage expressed concern the refugees resettled in NZ would use that as a “back door” to Australia in any large numbers.

We know that very few, if any, Tampa refugees resettled in NZ came to Australia.

If large numbers had come to Australia, Dutton would have been the first to highlight these numbers when he introduced draft legislation to prevent refugees who may be resettled in NZ being able to come to Australia.

He provided no such data to support his legislation.

The fact is refugees resettled in NZ cannot come to Australia until they acquire NZ citizenship, which itself would take many years.

Having lived in NZ for many years, they would put down roots, get jobs and so on.

Why then would they come permanently to Australia given that the NZ unemployment rate has been around 1 percentage point less than Australia’s for almost nine years? The NZ participation rate is around 71 per cent, significantly higher than Australia’s 66 per cent.

Moreover, if the resettled refugees did come to Australia, they would have no access to the social support they have access to in NZ.

The “back door” argument Dutton has used in the past is a complete furphy.

So why has the Government backflipped on the NZ offer after being implacably opposed to it for nine years?

The explanation can only be the coming Election.

Has the Government received political research that suggests its position on asylum seekers in general and the NZ offer, in particular, is unsustainable in key electorates such as Kooyong and Goldstein in Victoria and Wentworth and Warringah in Sydney?

Or was agreeing to the NZ offer part of the deal the Government did with Senator Jacqui Lambie for her support for the Medevac Bill?

Dr Abul Rizvi is an Independent Australia columnist and a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration. You can follow Abul on Twitter @RizviAbul.

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