The Regional Resettlement Arrangement between Australia and Papua New Guinea, colloquially known as the PNG solution, is the name given to an Australian government policy in which any asylum seeker who comes to Australia by boat without a visa will be refused settlement in Australia, instead being settled in Papua New Guinea if they are found to be legitimate refugees. The policy includes a significant expansion of the Australian immigration detention facility on Manus Island, where refugees will be sent to be processed prior to resettlement in Papua New Guinea, and if their refugee status is found to be non-genuine, they will be either repatriated, sent to a third country other than Australia or remain in detention indefinitely. The policy was announced on 19 July 2013 by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, effective immediately, in response to a growing number of asylum seeker boat arrivals and subsequent deaths at sea. The then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott initially welcomed the policy, while Greens leader Christine Milne and several human rights advocate groups opposed it, with demonstrations protesting the policy held in every major Australian city after the announcement.
The topic of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat, or irregular maritime arrivals (IMAs) has been a highly contentious issue in Australian politics since the government of John Howard. The Pacific Solution policy was first implemented in 2001 following a rising number of IMAs culminating in the Tampa affair and the Children Overboard affair, introduced the practice of intercepting asylum seeker boats and transferring the occupants to the Nauru detention centre for processing, as well as Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. This was successful in slowing the number of asylum seeker arrivals by boat—from 5516 arrivals in 2001 to 1 arrival in 2002—but the conditions of the offshore processing centres, the lack of independent scrutiny, and the mental health impact on the occupants, attracted significant criticism and controversy.
Upon Kevin Rudd's 2007 election win, the Pacific Solution was abandoned, with the Nauru processing centre closed down in February 2008, a move welcomed by the UN Refugee Agency. Since 2008, the number of asylum seeker arrivals by boat increased substantially—from 148 in 2007 to 6555 in 2010. This contributed to Rudd's ailing popularity through to 2010, when he resigned prior to a leadership spill of the Australian Labor Party to Julia Gillard; at this time Rudd said "This party and government will not be lurching to the right on the question of asylum seekers".
In July 2010, Gillard showed support for the utilisation of "regional processing centres". In December 2010, in the aftermath of an asylum seeker boat sinking at Christmas Island in which 48 occupants perished, Queensland Premier and ALP national president Anna Bligh called for a complete review of the government's policy on asylum seekers. In May 2011, the Gillard government put forward a plan to swap new asylum seekers for already-processed refugees in Malaysia. The policy, dubbed the Malaysian solution, was declared unlawful by the Australian High Court.
In 2012, the government commissioned the Houston Report to provide advice on the issue of IMAs. It handed down 22 recommendations, including the immediate reopening of immigration detention facilities on Manus Island and Nauru, which the government implemented with bipartisan support. Amnesty International described the conditions of the Nauru detention facility as "appalling" at this time. In June 2013, Kevin Rudd toppled Gillard in another leadership spill, following weeks of polls indicating the ALP would be defeated at the next election.
The number of IMAs continued to climb, to 25,173 in the 2012-13 financial year, and approximately 862 asylum seekers died trying to reach Australia between 2008 and July 2013. (Cartoon from Pickering Post)
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