Australia accepts New Zealand offer to take boat refugees

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Australia on Thursday accepted a longstanding New Zealand offer to resettle boat refugees it had sent to the remote island nation of Nauru.

Australia has faced harsh international criticism for the way it has treated boat refugees. It designed a policy of keeping them far from its shores to deter more of them from trying to make the voyage. But many critics say such policies violate human rights.

Under the terms of the deal, New Zealand will resettle up to 450 refugees over three years who are either living on Nauru or in temporary processing facilities in Australia.

Former New Zealand Prime Minister John Key first offered to take 150 offshore refugees annually back in 2013, and the offer has been repeated by leaders since, including by current Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

But until now Australia has always balked, arguing that if the refugees gained citizenship in New Zealand, they could use that as a way to move to Australia because of the two countries’ free-movement policy.

Australia did not immediately say what had prompted it to finally accept the offer, although the office of Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said the refugees that New Zealand accepts from Nauru will never be allowed to settle in Australia.

“This arrangement does not apply to anyone who attempts an illegal maritime journey to Australia in the future,” Andrews added. “Australia remains firm — illegal maritime arrivals will not settle here permanently. Anyone who attempts to breach our borders will be turned back or sent to Nauru.”

New Zealand’s Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said it was pleased Australia had taken up the offer.

“New Zealand has a long and proud history of refugee resettlement and this arrangement is another example of how we are fulfilling our humanitarian international commitment,” Faafoi said. “We are pleased to be able to provide resettlement outcomes for refugees who would otherwise have continued to face uncertain futures.”

Faafoi said all refugee applicants would be subject to rigorous screening.

Australia has been steadily reducing the number of refugees it holds on offshore islands. Once numbering in the thousands, currently only about 110 refugees are actually living on Nauru while another 1,100 are counted as temporarily staying in Australian processing facilities.

In October, Australia ended a deal it had with Papua New Guinea to house refugees there, giving those refugees the option to move to Nauru or resettle in the U.S.

That was after Australia struck a deal in the final days of President Barack Obama’s administration for the United States to resettle 1,250 migrants that Australia had refused to accept because they had come by boat.

The new deal with New Zealand will not apply to the 100 or so refugees who remain on Papua New Guinea.

Refugee Behrouz Boochani was granted refugee status in New Zealand in 2020 after arriving on a temporary visa to talk about the award-winning book he wrote about the years he spent held against his will on Papua New Guinea.

He documented unsanitary conditions, hunger strikes, and violence, as well as deaths caused by medical neglect and suicide.

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