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The Pacific Solution was the name given to the Australian government policy (2001–2007) of transporting asylum seekers to detention camps on small island nations in the Pacific Ocean, rather than allowing them to land on the Australian mainland. It had bi-partisan support from both the Liberal-National government and Labor opposition at the time. The Pacific Solution consisted of three central strategies. Firstly, thousands of islands were excised from Australia’s migration zone or Australian territory. Secondly, the Australian Defence Force commenced Operation Relex to interdict vessels containing asylum seekers. Finally, these asylum seekers were removed to third countries in order to determine their refugee status. There were a number of pieces of legislation supporting this policy. The policy was developed by the Howard government in response to the 2001 Tampa affair and was implemented by then Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock.

Asylum seekers were intercepted at sea while sailing from Indonesia and moved using Australian naval vessels. Detention camps were set up on Christmas Island, Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and on the tiny island nation of Nauru. Some were also accepted for processing by New Zealand. Most of the asylum seekers came from Afghanistan (largely of the Hazara ethnic group), Iraq, Iran, China, and Vietnam. The last asylum seekers to be detained on Nauru before the end of the policy had come from Sri Lanka and Myanmar.[1]

The policy was abandoned by the Australian Labor Party government of Kevin Rudd following its election in 2007.


Case for the Pacific Solution

The Pacific Solution was introduced as a deterrent to asylum seekers travelling by boat to Australia without the authorisation of the Australian government. In support of the policy, Prime Minister Howard famously stated, "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come."[2]

By redefining the area of Australian territory that could be landed upon and then legitimately used for claims of asylum (the migration zone), and by removing any intercepted people to 3rd countries for processing was made as a deterrent for future asylum seekers from making the dangerous journey, once they knew that their trip would probably not result in a legitimate claim for asylum in Australia.[3]

The Pacific Solution was highly successful in its goal of reducing the amount of illegal entrants arriving in the Australian waters by boat. Arrivals dropped from a total of 5516 people in 2001 to only 1 arrival in all of 2002 after implementation of the policy. The low level of boat arrivals continued all the way through the Pacific Solution period. Since the abolition of the policy there has been a sharp increase in boatpeople arrivals with over 1500 arriving in 2009 alone.[4][5]

During the Pacific Solution period, the Howard Government was able to begin closing detention centres due to the lower number of unauthorised arrivals. Christmas Island detention centre was built and finished during the Pacific Solution but was never opened by the Howard Government due to the very low level of arrivals. Baxter, Woomera and Curtin detention centres were all closed during the Pacific Solution. The Labor government opened Christmas Island detention centre late 2008 after a wave of boatpeople, and has since expanded facilities accommodation there, importing donga's from the Northern Territory.[6][7][8]

Criticism of the Pacific Solution

The policy received criticism from a number of areas, with Amnesty International, refugee rights groups and other non-governmental organisations claiming that Australia was failing to meet its international obligations. The ad-hoc nature in which the policy evolved was also criticised, as it resulted in people being moved to Manus Island and Nauru before facilities were ready.

As of May 29, 2005, a total of 1,229 asylum seekers had been processed on Nauru. Most of those detained were eventually found to be legitimate refugees, sometimes after more than three years in detention. By October 2005 all but two remaining asylum seekers, Mohammed Sagar and Muhammad Faisal, had been transferred to mainland Australia with the majority of these entering the community with temporary protection visas. While Faisal and Sagar were eventually resettled to Australia and Sweden respectively, additional groups of Burmese and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees were brought to the island in 2006 and 2007.

Worldwide refugee applications peaked on a 20 year high in 2001, and fell by around 50% by 2006. This period coincided with the Pacific Solution implementation and makes it difficult to judge the true efficacy of the program.

The cost of the Pacific Solution was over $15.5 million AUD in 2003/2004, taken from the AusAID budget of $69.9 million.[9]

The end of the Pacific Solution

During the campaign for the 2007 parliamentary election, Australian Labor Party candidate Kevin Rudd promised to put an end to the 'Pacific Solution' if he were elected. Upon assuming office in December, Rudd confirmed that the detention centres on Manus Island and on Nauru would be closed. The seven asylum seekers from Myanmar and 75 of the 83 from Sri Lanka were granted the right to settle in Australia.[10][11] An additional 6 Sri Lankans had been found to be genuine refugees but had initially been charged with sexual assault on a Nauruan woman; those charges were dropped in January 2008, making it possible for the six men to be resettled in Australia (pending standard health and character checks). Of the two remaining Sri Lankans, one is appealing the rejection of his refugee application, while the other is currently (as of January 2008) hospitalised in Australia.[12] The first 21 Sri Lankan refugees arrived in Australia for resettlement in January 2008.[13] The final 21 arrived in Australia on February 8, leaving the detention camp empty and marking the end of the "Pacific Solution".[14]

Nauru has reacted with concern at the prospect of potentially losing much-needed aid from Australia.[15] Opposition immigration spokesman Chris Ellison said the closure could suggest to people-smugglers that Australia was weakening on border protection.[16]


  1. ^ « Sri Lankans to be sent to Nauru », BBC, 15 March 2007
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  6. ^,23599,22261352-29277,00.html
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  10. ^ « Pacific solution ends but tough stance to remain », Craig Skehan, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 December 2007
  11. ^ « Burmese detainees granted asylum », Cath Hart, The Australian, 10 December 2007
  12. ^ "Rape charges vs refugees in Nauru dropped", Marianas Variety, 16 January 2008
  13. ^ "Sri Lankan refugees arrive in Australia from Nauru", Radio Australia, 16 January 2008
  14. ^ "Howard's 'cynical' Pacific Solution over", Herald Sun, 18 February 2008
  15. ^ « Nauru fears gap when camps close », The Age, 11 December 2007
  16. ^ "Pacific Solution sinks quietly". The Australian.,25197,23183785-5013404,00.html. 

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