Australia to send refugees from Manus Island to Philippines in $150m deal
The Australian – 8 October 2015
EXCLUSIVE: THE Federal Government is in final negotiations to send refugees from Manus Island to the Philippines, in a deal worth around $150 million.
It is understood be part of a far broader Strategic Partnership Agreement now under discussion with the 100 million-strong Philippines, south-east Asia’s fifth largest economy, which would
also cover trade issues and a deeper security alliance.
The agreement is the fruits of months of diplomatic door knocking by Australian officials in the region, who have been desperate to find a solution to the increasingly politically problematic detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.
Both camps have gained notoriety for poor living conditions, with the killing of asylum seeker Reza Berati on Manus and accusations of rape and child abuse on Nauru.
News Corp understands that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was given a verbal assurance by her Filipino counterpart Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert Del Rosario that the refugee deal would go ahead, at a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week.
In comments to News Corp, Ms Bishop confirmed that she had held talks on refugee issues with Mr Del Rosario in New York but declined to reveal details of any agreements.
“The governments of Australia and the Philippines have long cooperated on irregular migration, people smuggling and human trafficking,” Ms Bishop said. “These issues are important to both countries, and to the region.”
Talks with the Philippines began in mid August, according to a senior official in the international refugee aid sector, and three meetings were held in the capital Manila in the lead up to the meeting of the foreign ministers last week.
Ambassador for People Smuggling Issues Andrew Goledzinowski, a former ambassador to the United Nations and adviser for foreign ministers Gareth Evans and Alexander Downer, has been leading the talks on the Australian side.
It is understood the deal has been backed by Mr Del Rosario and his Cabinet colleagues Justice Secretary Leila Del Lima and Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin — who preside over the Philippines inter-agency group on refugees.
The deal is now awaiting final sign-off of from Philippines President Begnino Aquino who faces significant opposition from sections of the country’s bureaucracy and aid agencies, including concerns that such an agreement would put the country on the radar of people smugglers as well as helping Australia dodge its legal obligations under the 1951 UN refugee treaty.
President Aquino said on September 8 that the Philippines was open to taking in refugees, with some reservations.
“The culture is there, but we want to make sure that we manage it properly, that we don’t take more than we can handle,” he said.
In initial talks Australia is understood to have offered the Philippines $30 million per year over five years, a total of $150 million but the final figure remains unclear.
There are also concerns in the Philippines that resettled refugees may attempt once more to use boats to try to reach wealthier nations such as Australia.
Mr Aquino previously turned down a direct request from former prime minister Julia Gillard in 2012 as she was seeking regional assistance for refugee processing, eventually announcing the aborted deal with Malaysia to process refugees, the aid agency source said.
The Philippines has always been a prime target for Australian officials when exploring refugee solutions, a former senior Immigration Department official said. Along with Cambodia, Papua
New Guinea and Nauru it is one of only four nations in the Asia Pacific, besides Australia and New Zealand, to have signed the UN treaty.
Unlike the other countries, the Philippines has had a long history of accepting and resettling refugees including people from Vietnam, Russia and East Timor. In May it offered to take ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar after it emerged than more than 100,000 people had fled northern Myanmar and neighbouring Bangladesh.
News of a new deal comes only days after the government of Nauru, with behind the scenes prompting from Australia “opened” the Australian funded and managed detention camp there two days before a High Court case about the legality of the camp there was due to begin.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton denied the camp’s changed status — its inmates are now allowed to come and go as they please — was linked to the court hearing.
The United Nations High Commissioner for refugees declined to comment, referring News Corp to the Philippines government.
A spokesman for Mr Del Rosario said he “would look into it.”
Originally published as Manus refugees set for Philippines