The ‘Pacific solution’?  by Greg Fry

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The ‘Pacific Solution’?

By Greg Fry

HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (March 7, 2002 – PIR)---On 1 September 2001 the Australian Prime Minister John Howard announced a ‘truly Pacific solution’ to the self-imposed dilemma before him: how to deliver on his very public promise that no asylum seeker aboard the MV Tampa, then in Australian waters off Christmas Island, would be allowed to step onto Australian territory. The ‘Pacific solution’ to which he referred was the agreement of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Helen Clark and Nauru’s President Rene Harris to an Australian request to allow the 433 Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers aboard the Norwegian freighter to be transferred to holding camps in their countries while their claims to refugee status were processed.

With asylum seekers on the open deck of the vessel, media attention focused upon the ship and the health of its passengers and international criticism mounting, the ‘Pacific solution’ was the Howard government’s last resort. In the previous 48 hours the government’s threat to the Tampa’s captain, Arne Rinnan, to charge him under the Migration Act, had failed to deter him from entering Australian waters. It then ordered SAS forces to seize the vessel, in ‘Operation Reflex’, as a first step in a plan to sail the ship back into international waters. But the next step in this plan, new ‘border protection’ legislation to guarantee that Australian officials would not be liable for their actions, failed to gain sufficient support in a rushed session of the Australian Parliament. The plan was therefore abandoned. A third approach, that of returning the passengers to Indonesia, was refused by the Indonesian authorities (following what was seen as Australia’s ‘megaphone diplomacy’). Then in an extra­ordinary move, clearly demonstrating the level of desperation felt in the government camp, the Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer approached the UN Administrator in Timor, Sergio Vieira de Mello, with a request that the Tampa passengers be transferred to a camp in Timor. This request, made on the day of Timor’s first election, was refused, reportedly in disbelief, by the UN Administrator and by the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, whom Prime Minister Howard had approached separately. [i]

The expanding ‘solution’

But the ‘Pacific solution’ was not just about providing an answer to the difficult and urgent problem of delivering on the Prime Minister’s uncompromising stance on the Tampa. It also quickly became a way out of a much more significant problem for the government: how to honour the Prime Minister’s broader promise to the Australian people that, from the Tampa on, no asylum seeker coming by any boat into Australian waters would be allowed to land on Australian territory. This expanded position, which came to be known as the ‘border protection’ policy, required an expanded ‘Pacific solution’ to be credible. Henceforth such asylum seekers were to be apprehended and taken to detention camps in Pacific Island countries where their claims would be processed. Reflecting this new commitment, the government sought to widen and deepen the ‘Pacific solution’. It gained Papua New Guinea’s agreement to set up a new detention camp at Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island (initially to take 216 Iraqi asylum seekers); it approached Nauru to take more asylum seekers in the Topside camp (to a maximum of 1,200) in return for a further A$10 million in economic assistance in addition to the initial A$20 million; and it approached the governments of Fiji, Tuvalu, Palau and Kiribati about the possibility of setting up new detention camps.

The immediate popularity of the ‘border protection’ policy within Australia meant that the ‘Pacific solution’ also became the answer to a third problem of the highest significance to the Australian government. With the opinion polls prior to the Tampa crisis showing declining sup­port for the Howard government and possible defeat at the upcoming elections, the popularity of the government’s strong stand on asylum seekers provided the answer to the pressing political dilemma of how to recapture the support of the Australian electorate. The ‘Pacific solution’ made that stand credible. In the event, the ‘defence of the borders’ policy, aimed at denying entry to anyone seeking asylum from political persecution, dominated the election campaign and helped ensure the return of the Howard government at the November poll.

The centrality of the border protection policy in the electoral success of the Howard government meant that the new government now had to turn a policy developed on the run just before an election campaign into a more permanent arrangement. Although even the Minister for Immi­gration Philip Ruddock was now admitting that the ‘Pacific solution’ might be difficult to sustain [ii] (apart from anything else the costs were by now substantial), the government had little choice but to go further down this path if its credibility was not to be seriously in question. With Fiji and Kiribati now out of the running for inclusion in the ‘Pacific solution’ (Fiji having rejected the offer and Kiribati’s Kanton Island having been rejected for logistical reasons), and Nauru at full capacity (by then asylum seekers constituted around an eighth of its total population), the government turned to Papua New Guinea with a request to increase the numbers in the Lombrum Naval Base camp by 784, to a total of 1,000. By the end of January 2002, Australia had diverted or was about to divert 2,350 asylum seekers from Australian waters to Pacific detention camps. There were 1,118 in Nauru, and plans to lift the numbers from 216 to 1,000 in Papua New Guinea. Palau still remained as a possible third site. By then, New Zealand had processed the 150 Tampa people it had received in September and decided to accept nearly all of them as citizens after they were found to be bona fide refugees.

Ethical questions

Now that the ‘Pacific solution’ has become an ongoing arrangement for Australia’s ‘border protection’ rather than a short-term political expe­dient for re-election, it is important to examine the ethics of the ‘Pacific solution’ more closely. The issues may be usefully considered under three headings: Australia’s denial of responsibility and the attempt to transfer responsibility to Pacific societies; the denial of rights for asylum seekers; and the way in which the Howard government has represented the ‘Pacific solution’ to Pacific governments, on the one hand, and the Australian public, on the other.

Transferring responsibility

The ethical issues involved in the Australian government denying responsibility for asylum seekers who arrive in its waters are compounded by the issues attending the attempt to transfer that responsibility to others. If Australia’s approach to Timor was greeted with disbelief, the approach to Nauru the following day seemed to confirm that the Australian government was fixated on solving its own problem without any regard for the vulnerable societies to which it was seeking to transfer it. It was impossible to disguise the obvious. Here was one of the world’s richest and most politically stable countries seeking to offload a ‘problem’, which it had sold to its own public as beyond the capacity of Australia to deal with, to a bankrupt country which is among the smallest island countries in population (8,000) and size (20 square kilometres in circumference). Although not as vul­nerable or as desperate as Timor and Nauru, the other Pacific countries that the Australian government has approached all have little capacity to deal with such an influx. In Fiji’s national debate on the Australian proposal, concerns were voiced about local capacity given other urgent priorities in the fragile post-coup environment. The leader of the Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei Party, Filipe Bole, argued that ‘Fiji had its own internal refugee problem that had to be sorted out before it could accommodate refugee-processing centres for other countries’. [iii] Kiribati, Tuvalu and Palau each have small populations and few resources, including very limited water supplies. Papua New Guinea, although very rich in resources and with a much larger population (around five million), also lacks the administrative capacity to deal with this issue and has other urgent and fundamental priorities, especially public order and internal security.

The vulnerable and small societies of the Pacific did not just happen to be approached by Australia; they were approached because they were vulnerable and dependent on Australia. It is no coincidence that Nauru was approached first. President Harris had serious cash flow problems and his government was under threat of a no-confidence motion. The Howard government knew he would be amenable to an Australian approach to take on its problem. The abuse of power involved in this attempt to exploit a region of small states which it saw as susceptible to its will was compounded by another aspect of the transfer of responsi­bility: the offer of economic assistance in return for taking in asylum seekers. Fiji’s Labour Party leader, Mahendra Chaudry, has described the offer of money to the Fiji government in return for a detention centre as ‘a shameful display of cheque book diplomacy’ and as ‘tantamount to offering a bribe’. [iv] Australia’s approach to several Pacific countries, together with the known offers of economic assistance, prompted the Director-General of the Pacific Forum Secretariat, Noel Levi, to warn that Australia was creating a ‘market in refugees’, [v] and the Pacific Con­ference of Churches and other regional non-governmental organisations to issue a ‘joint statement’ in which among other things they expressed their concern that ‘accepting the Australian aid deals will make Pacific Island Governments part of the process that solicits money/profits out of trade in human trafficking’. [vi] For Nauruan Member of Parliament, Anthony Audoa, it was encouraging the Pacific Islands to act like prostitutes:

I don’t know what is behind the mentality of the Australian leaders but I don’t think it is right. A country that is desperate with its economy, and you try to dangle a carrot in front of them, of course, just like a prostitute, if you dangle money in front of her, you think she will not accept it? Of course she will, because she’s desperate. [vii]

The government’s ethical defence of its actions in transferring res­ponsibility for its problem to the small Pacific states is that the Pacific leaders had given their consent. Leaving aside the question already considered of whether that consent was given in a context of vul­nerability, there are serious problems with the Australian government’s approach to gaining consent. In the case of the two countries that have actually become part of the ‘Pacific solution’ there was almost no time given for the leaders to consult their colleagues, their parliaments or their societies on such a major issue. Driven by domestic political motives, Australia was asking for an immediate decision from President Harris on an issue that had massive implications for his small island. The fact that the Nauruan population heard about the decision on the BBC and not from its own government was a source of considerable dissension in Nauru. [viii]

In the case of Papua New Guinea the haste associated with the deal for domestic consumption in Australia meant that the announcement of the arrangement was made in Canberra by the Australian Prime Minister before it was made in Port Moresby. This prompted Sir Michael Somare to describe Australia’s approach as ‘neo-colonialism’. The Foreign Minister, John Pundari, after being sacked by the Prime Minister for sending a letter to the Australian High Commissioner rejecting a request to increase the number of asylum seekers coming to PNG, stated that the Prime Minister had ‘treated him with contempt’ by not consulting him when making the initial commitment to Australia. [ix] At the provincial level too there has been considerable concern about having the detention centre foisted on Manus without debate about the implications of such matters as the security of the local people.

Nor was the issue discussed at the regional level, an oversight of par­ticular concern to the Director-General of the Pacific Forum Secretariat. The Australian government had created an appearance of Pacific-wide policy and Pacific-wide consent in its very use of the term ‘Pacific solution’. And yet there has been no attempt to consult the regional forums where the officials and leaders of the islands confer on issues of mutual concern.

There are also ethical issues involved in the way in which in attemp­ting the urgent transfer of responsibility at any cost, the Australian government was willing to go against its own established principles in its approach to Pacific policy. In particular, it was willing to forego its support for good governance, democracy and sustainable development, the cornerstone of its economic assistance policies. The most obvious case is Nauru. There has been concern among those critical of the Harris government’s mismanagement that Australia’s bailing out of the government meant that it did not have to face up to its political consequences. [x] In relation to Fiji, too, some were critical of Australia lifting post-coup sanctions just days before seeking Fiji’s assistance with its asylum seeker problem. Some saw this as foregoing the ‘good governance’ principles that Australia had earlier espoused. In her letter to Prime Minister Howard, Beatrice Dindillo, National Secretary of the Papua New Guinea Timber and Construction Workers Union argued that:

We are supposed to see the processing of human beings as some kind of industry assistance for PNG … It is clear that the Australian Govern­ment has now forfeited the moral high ground it cultivated in the past few decades … A new set of rules now applies that tie aid to the domestic issue of the day in Australia. It is a very clear message for PNG. [xi]

Denying rights

The Australian government’s attempt to transfer responsibility has also had implications for the rights of the asylum seekers transported to the Pacific detention camps on Australian naval ships. The right of the asylum seekers to enter Australia and have their claims investigated have been denied. They have then been transported to camps thousands of kilometres away. In the case of Nauru they have been transported to a country which is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a move that denies them the protection of the Convention. Papua New Guinea, although a signatory, has placed reser­vations on important provisions in the Convention which affect the rights of the detainees. [xii] There were also accusations of forced removal of the Tampa asylum seekers from HMAS Manoora in Nauru. The Nauruan hosts called for a halt to unloading until Australia honoured its agreement that Nauruan observers could be on board as asylum seekers were asked to leave the Manoora to ensure that force was not used. In response to criticisms the Australian Defence Minister Peter Reith was reported as saying that he did not ‘have a problem about using force if absolutely necessary’. Nauru’s Secretary to Government, Mathew Batsiua, in referring to the issue, reportedly said ‘that Nauru had been able to reinforce its opposition to forced disembarkations’. Prime Minister Howard said that Australia ‘was respectful to Nauru’s sensitivities … but there is no way these people are coming to Australia’. [xiii] Furthermore, there are important ethical issues concerning the rights of asylum seekers involved in the Howard government exporting its mandatory detention camps (unique among Western states) to the Pacific. [xiv]

The Australian government also affected the rights of the asylum seekers in the way it represented them to the Pacific governments as they negotiated their transfer. Pacific leaders were also aware of how these ‘boat people’ had been represented by the government in the Australian debate. These representations demonised the asylum seekers, making them out to be a security threat. This needlessly alarmed Pacific populations including the people on Manus Island and Nauru, in particular, and meant that the rights of the asylum seekers to be seen as victims of political persecution requiring humanitarian assistance, rather than as criminals, were denied.

Double dealing

Finally, there is a set of issues that arise concerning the way in which the ‘Pacific solution’ was represented to Pacific leaders, on the one hand, and the Australian public, on the other. The government’s mes­sage to the Australian people was that this policy would provide an absolute guarantee that the Tampa asylum seekers, and other ‘boat people’, would not come to Australian territory. But its message to Pacific governments was very different. There, it was represented as a short-term measure. Under the agreements signed and verbal assurances given to Pacific leaders, the Australian government was to pick up the responsibility for the asylum seekers after processing. Australia guaran­teed to the Papua New Guinea and Nauru governments that no-one would remain in their countries after they had been processed. That is, whether or not they were judged to be bona fide refugees, Australia guaranteed that ‘no-one would be left behind’.

While some commentators pointed out the incompatibility of these contradictory messages before the November election the duplicity involved did not become fully clear until the processing of the Tampa asylum seekers neared completion on Nauru in January 2002. The Nauru government made it clear that it expected the Australian govern­ment to honour its agreement and take the processed people to Australia. For the Australian audience, Prime Minister Howard first tried the line of argument that some refugees ‘could well remain in those countries’. [xv] This was quickly dropped, however, once this new message, which was in direct contravention of the agreement with the Pacific partners, filtered through to the Pacific. The Australian High Commissioner in Port Moresby had to assure a Papua New Guinea audience that (contrary to the Prime Minister’s pronouncement) Australia would honour its agreement. [xvi]

The Australian Minister for Immigration then tried a different tack. In January 2002 when it was suggested by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that Australia had a ‘special responsibility’ to take the refugees because it had taken the refugees to Nauru against their will, the Minister responded that Australia would only do its ‘fair share’, and that it had no special responsibility. He said that refugees could stay on in Nauru until other members of the international community could be persuaded to take them. Nauru’s President Harris saw this pronouncement as contradicting his government’s agreement with Australia. With the international community unsympathetic to Australia’s position on the Tampa and the ‘Pacific solution’, this effectively meant that refugees would wait a long time on Nauru and it said nothing about those found not to be genuine refugees. Either way it meant that Australia had broken its agreement. Politically the Howard government cannot afford to now bring the Tampa people to Australia and yet it had guaranteed that ‘no-one would be left behind’ in order to achieve the agreement of the Pacific states. This double dealing, along with the excessive costs involved, is likely to ultimately see the undoing of the ‘Pacific solution’.


For Australians used to hearing the Pacific described as a problem, whether as ‘arc of crisis’, a region of ‘failed states’ or as an area of corrupt mismanaged economies, the idea that the Pacific could provide a solution to an Australian problem is a novel one. The image of a protective shield of islands defending Australia from a security threat to its borders is however reminiscent of a much earlier depiction—that of H.V. Evatt’s characterisation of the Pacific Islands at the end of the Pacific War as a ‘defence shield’ for Australia. Although Evatt’s depiction was referring to possible military threat, and the ‘Pacific solution’ to asylum seekers, the rhetoric surrounding the imagery is very similar. The asylum seeker problem is presented as a security threat and the ‘Pacific solution’ as part of ‘border protection’.

Behind this rhetoric of ‘solution’, ‘protection’ and ‘security’ however is a policy that has been developed without regard for the problems it imposes on other societies. In its exploitative use of the power relations between Australia and the Pacific Islands the policy is already being compared with the French, American and British use of the island territories for the testing of nuclear weapons. Like these earlier interventions, the Howard government has given no thought to the impact of ‘dumping’ its ‘problem’ on small, vulnerable and resource-less societies. The deception and manipulation of power relations invol­ved in creating the ‘Pacific solution’ has also undercut the standing of the ethical principles that Australian governments have long espoused as the desirable normative order in the Pacific Islands region—a respect for human rights, good governance and democracy. The ‘Pacific solution’ is built on a denial of the protection and security due to asylum seekers who have come to Australia’s shores. It has also involved the propping up of ‘bad governance’ in return for accepting asylum seekers. And in the way in which the Australian government negotiated to transfer its ethical responsibility to Pacific societies, it showed a contempt for processes aimed at gaining consent, not least in deceiving Pacific leaders about whether that transfer would be temporary or permanent.


[i]    Marion Wilkinson and David Marr, ‘The Pacific solution’, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 October 2001, p. 15.

[ii] ‘Refugee plan may backfire, says Ruddock’, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 December 2001, p. 1.

[iii] ‘No to Afghan asylum seekers, Fiji government warned’, The Sun (Suva), 20 October 2001.

[iv] Fiji’s Daily Post, 27 October 2001.

[v]    Mark Forbes, ‘Pacific refugee plan under fire’, The Age, 30 October 2001.

[vi] ‘Refugees in the Pacific’, Joint Statement by the Pacific Conference of Churches, Pacific Desk of the World Council of Churches, Pacific Islands Association of Non-Governmental Organisations, Pacific Concerns Resources Centre, Pacific Theological College, Pacific Foundation for the Advancement of Women, Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific, Ecumenical Centre for Research and Advocacy, South Pacific Association of Theological Schools, Suva, 26 October 2001.

[vii]      ‘Nauru MP Audoa likens asylum seeker deal to prostitution’, Radio Australia, 12 December 2001.

[viii]     Claire Miller, ‘Paradise lost? Nauruans begin to question deal’, The Age, 19 October 2001.

[ix] ‘Former Foreign Affairs Minister Pundari accuses PNG PM Morauta of double standards’, The National, 5 November 2001.

[x]    Miller, ‘Paradise lost?’.

[xi] ‘Pacific solution shows who runs PNG: Union’, The National, 13 December 2001.

[xii]      Oxfam Community Aid Abroad, Adrift in the Pacific: The implications of Australia’s Pacific refugee solution (Fitzroy, VIC: Oxfam Community Aid Abroad, February 2002), p. 6.

[xiii]     Craig Skehan et al., ‘Tempers flare in scorching stalemate’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 October 2001, p. 3.

[xiv]      Oxfam Community Aid Abroad, Adrift in the Pacific, p. 6.

[xv] Craig Skehan, ‘Nauru, we seem to have a problem’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 November 2001, p. 6.

[xvi]      ‘Australia assures PNG, Nauru it will honour refugees pact’, Post-Courier, 15 November 2001.

The 'Pacific Solution'? is an excerpt, by permission of the author, from the following publication:

"Refugees and the Myth of the Borderless World"

William Maley Alan Dupont Jean-Pierre Fonteyne Greg Fry James Jupp Thuy Do

National Library of Australia Canberra February 2002

Cataloguing-in-Publication Entry.

Refugees and the myth of the borderless world.

ISBN 0 7315 3116 7. ISSN 1446-0726

1.         Illegal aliens – Australia. 2. Refugees – Government policy – Australia. 3. Refugees – Australia. 4. Australia – Politics and government. I. Maley, William, 1957- .II. Australian National University. Dept. of International Relations. (Series : Keynotes – Australian National University. Department of International Relations ; 2).


Published by Department of International Relations RSPAS Australian National University Canberra ACT 0200 Australia Tel: +61 (2) 6125 2166 Fax: +61 (2) 6125 8010 Email: Web:

Series Editor Christian Reus-Smit Managing Editor Mary-Louise Hickey Cover by RTM Design Printed by Goprint

©  Thuy Do, Alan Dupont, Greg Fry, Jean-Pierre Fonteyne, James Jupp, William Maley

Table of Contents

Preface Christian Reus-Smit


A global refugee crisis?   William Maley


Refugees and illegal migrants in the Asia–Pacific region Alan Dupont 


‘Illegal refugees’ or illegal policy?  Jean-Pierre Fonteyne


The ‘Pacific solution’?                                                             Greg Fry


Australia’s refugee and humanitarian policies  James Jupp


Statistics: Refugees and Australia’s contribution                          Thuy Do




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