Australia has finally accepted New Zealand’s offer to resettle refugees from its immigration detention centres. After successive Australian prime ministers refused to take it up, The Detail asks what’s changed and why now?

New Zealand’s offer to resettle refugees held in Australian immigration detention centres sat on the table for nine years before it was finally accepted last week

New Zealand will take in 450 refugees currently in processing facilities on Nauru or the Australian mainland over the next three years, with those places coming out of New Zealand’s annual refugee quota of 1500. 

The original deal was struck back in 2013, by then-Prime Minister John Key and his Australian counterpart Julia Gillard. 

But successive Australian prime ministers have refused to take it up, even in the face of mounting criticism of Australia’s treatment of people stuck in immigration detention centres – some of them, for many years. 

So, why now? 

As the ABC’s foreign affairs reporter Stephen Dziedzic explains, Australia’s hardline immigration policy dates back more than two decades. 

“Around 2000, we started to see an increase in the number of people trying to come to Australia by boat, refugees”, he says. 

“This quickly became an enormously contentious issue in Australian politics. There was anxiety about the fact that large numbers of people were coming to Australia by unconventional means. 

“There was concern that many of these people may not be legitimate, or ‘true’ refugees. 

“There was a broad political debate in Australia that was, at times, pretty feverish, about the prospect of thousands and thousands of people coming to Australia by boat.” 

Refugees arriving in Australia by boat were uniformly detained at processing facilities, such as those on Nauru and Manus Island, and on the Australian mainland. 

This practice was strongly condemned for its perceived inhumanity by refugee groups and organisations like Amnesty International. 

But the Australian government held firm, insisting that allowing refugees to settle would be a tacit endorsement of people smugglers; that it may compromise Australia’s security; and that Australia – which has a refugee quota in the tens of thousands – already does its fair share in this area. 

Dziedzic says all these factors contributed to Australia’s reluctance to take up New Zealand’s offer, as well as a big sticking-point: the so-called ‘backdoor entry’ and fears that refugees would try to circumvent Australia’s policy by going to New Zealand, gaining residency and citizenship, and then heading across the Tasman anyway. 

Asked why Australia has abruptly changed its tune, Dziedzic says there’s no definitive answer. 

There’s speculation the tide of public opinion has turned against the government’s policy – that the Scott Morrison-led coalition government, which is lagging in political polls, is trying to buy liberal votes in an election year. 

“[There is] a recognition in government, I think, that they want to find solutions for these people. 

“It’s hard to find one single compelling factor, but I think all those things fed into a willingness in the government to try and reach an agreement with New Zealand.”  

Dziedzic says while he certainty believes New Zealand is “doing Australia a solid”, the question of whether there could be a reciprocal softening in Australia’s stance towards the 501s – New Zealand citizens who’ve lived in Australia for decades, who are deported back here after committing crimes or failing character tests – is more up in the air. 

He says he can’t see the coalition government changing anything dramatically, but in the event of a change of government, there could be more room for movement. 

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