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By UNICEF Australia
17 November 2016

There have been mixed reactions and plenty of questions since the Australian Government announced plans to resettle refugees from Nauru and Manus Island to the United States.

Some thought it was a breakthrough for children who have been waiting far too long for a safe, supportive and permanent place to rebuild their lives. Others were disappointed, angry or sad that our government would shift its humanitarian responsibilities across the world.

We at UNICEF Australia welcomed the resettlement plan as a positive solution for some of the world's most vulnerable children. Here’s why.

Let's start with the facts

There has been a lot of speculation and confusion about how this resettlement plan will unfold.

Following a briefing from Minister Dutton’s office, we understand the following to be accurate.

  • This is a genuine arrangement. It’s the product of months of planning and negotiation and, regardless of changes in US leadership, the Australian Government is confident it will go ahead.
  • Resettlement is only available to people who have been found to be refugees and whose claims have been processed offshore. Those already found not to be refugees will be required to return to their country of origin.
  • The arrangement applies to refugees currently on Nauru and Manus Island as well as those who are in Australia for medical treatment or mental health support. These people will be required to return to Nauru to be considered for resettlement.
  • The arrangement does not apply to those who arrive by boat in the future.
  • Australia will refer refugees to the US for consideration in its regular admission program. People who do not satisfy the United States’ standard requirements for resettlement or do not accept its offer will instead be given a 20 year visa to live on Nauru.
  • The most vulnerable people, including children, women and families, are being prioritised for referral.

This is not a perfect plan but it is the best possible solution for children

It’s understandable why some supporters of refugees disagree with this arrangement.

UNICEF Australia has always maintained that refugees on Nauru and Manus Island should be given protection in Australia. We know, as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees recently said, “the basic human right of every person to seek asylum from persecution is not diminished by their mode of arrival.” We believe Australia should take a fair share of responsibility for the challenges of a global refugee crisis.

There are other legitimate concerns with the plan. We understand some refugees may not qualify or agree to resettle in the US, so the Australian Government must continue its dialogue with other resettlement countries to ensure everyone has an appropriate solution. It’s true the arrangement excludes people who have already been denied refugee status. And it is problematic that some people currently receiving medical treatment and mental health care will be expected to return to Nauru. UNICEF Australia is particularly concerned for women and girls who have experienced sexual and gender based violence being returned to Nauru. Careful thought must be given to prevent or minimise further distress and harm.

But we also recognise the political reality. Both the government and opposition have firmly committed to never allow refugees who arrive by boat to settle in Australia. It’s within this harsh reality that we must find the best possible outcome for children who are still facing danger and a life in limbo on Nauru.

If we accept nothing less than bringing these children to Australia, they are likely to be stuck on Nauru indefinitely.

UNICEF Australia’s response to this dilemma is, like all of our work, guided by the UN Convention on the Rights of Child. At the very core of the Convention is the principle that the best interests of children must be the primary concern in every decision that affects them.

We believe it’s in the best interests of refugee children on Nauru to urgently relocate to a safe environment. They need support to recover from prolonged stress, violence and family separation. They need better opportunities to learn, grow up in good health and rebuild their lives in stable communities.

Resettlement in the United States can provide these things. It offers full citizenship, access to family reunification and the certainty children need for their futures.

Let refugees decide for themselves

Ultimately, it’s what refugees think that really matters.

Some on Manus Island first responded to the announcement with joy and relief.

"Honestly, yesterday the mood in the detention [centre] was over the cloud [sic],” Sudanese refugee Azis Adam told ABC News. “I can say, because everyone was happy and I've never [seen] people... happy like this before."

For some, joy gave way to confusion.

"This morning, everyone was smiling. Now, everyone is frustrated," Walid Zazai told Fairfax Media.

There are still important questions to be answered and some refugees are understandably skeptical about the government’s offer.

Refugees have a right to free, prior and informed consent to decisions about their resettlement. It’s important they are give full and accurate information about the process and what support they’ll receive once in the US. This information must be made available in their respective languages and refugees should also have access to independent legal advice.

This is their choice to make.  

No, it is not a perfect solution and that is why UNICEF Australia will continue working with the government to strengthen supports and protections for every child affected.

We see the US resettlement plan as a genuine opportunity for children and their families to start new lives in safety. Let’s give them the chance.