Canberra seeks deal on refugees with Manila

Asylum seekers in offshore centres may move to Philippines in $152m pact, says report

Australia hopes to relocate refugees in its offshore detention centres to the Philippines, in a deal said to be worth A$150 million (S$152 million).

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton confirmed yesterday that Australia has been discussing the possibility of resettling refugees in the Philippines and several other countries.

A spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Manila also said Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario discussed the refugee issue with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop "in the context of how each country is finding ways to fulfil its international obligation".

Talking to reporters in Canberra, Mr Dutton said: "We have been very open to discussions for a long period of time with those partners because we have been very clear about the fact that people on Nauru and people on Manus who have sought to come to our country illegally by boat won't be settling in Australia."

But he declined to release further details, including a timeframe for the deal or how many refugees could be resettled.

An earlier report in The Australian newspaper said the deal - which involves sending refugees from Manus island in Papua New Guinea to the Philippines, with Australia paying A$150 million in resettlement expenses over five years - is now awaiting the final sign-off from Philippine President Benigno Aquino.

Australia struck a A$40 million deal last year with Cambodia to relocate refugees from a detention camp on the tiny South Pacific nation of Nauru.

That arrangement has struggled to get off the ground, with only four refugees - a Rohingya and three Iranians - taking up the offer of cash, free health insurance and accommodation to move from Nauru to Phnom Penh.

Australia refuses to accept asylum seekers who attempt to reach its shores by boat, turning them back to Indonesia when it can and sending others to detention centres in Nauru and Manus. Human rights groups have strongly criticised harsh conditions at these camps, citing the killing of asylum-seeker Reza Berati on Manus last year, and accusations of rape and child abuse.

With critics hammering the refugee deal with Cambodia as an expensive flop, Australia has had to look for other solutions.

The Philippines has a long history of accepting and resettling refugees from Vietnam, Russia and Timor Leste. In May, it offered to take in Rohingyas from Myanmar.

However, refugee advocates in Australia doubt many would be eager to relocate to the Philippines as they are unlikely to get jobs, as is the case in Cambodia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2015, with the headline 'Canberra seeks deal on refugees with Manila'. Print Edition | Subscribe