SYDNEY — Senator Anne Ruston, assistant minister for international development and the Pacific, faced a tough audience at the Australian Council for International Development Conference on Oct. 31, when she criticized the message coming from the sector on the issue of refugee children living in limbo on Nauru.
Following her address to the ACFID audience, Ruston spoke with Devex on the issue of refugees on Nauru, as well as areas of the aid program that can be better prioritized.
The politics of Nauru
On the first day of the ACFID conference, the organization and its members called for children to be removed from Nauru by Nov. 20. ACFID cited evidence of failing mental health of children — with reports of attempted suicide and self-harm — presented by Médecins Sans Frontières in October.
The number of children on Nauru is now down to 35, according to media reports. While children can go to school, their family cannot work, and no one has visas — preventing the ability to live independently. The Human Rights Law Centre explained to Devex that those on Nauru are essentially in detention.
Within 48 hours of being appointed assistant minister, Ruston was on a plane to Nauru to attend the Pacific Island Forum Leaders’ Meeting.
Regarding the refugees on Nauru, Ruston said they are living in “communities.”
“They go to school, have access to health care — and one of the things I am keen to get out is that these people are not in a detention center,” she said. “The people of Nauru have been tremendously welcoming. And we will continue to work with Nauru and third-party resettlement countries to ensure that we are able [to] resettle the people.”
The future of these refugees, and those in Australia, are still in limbo. In Nauru, reports indicate substandard living conditions, limited medical support, and the threat of violence from local communities — especially felt by women, who have reported cases of sexual violence.
The United Nations has highlighted Australia’s responsibility to resettle refugees. In November 2016, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights reported that Australia had failed refugees. In July 2017, the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees Filippo Grandi criticized Australia for going back on an agreement to resettle vulnerable refugees with families in Australia. And in September, the new U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet had harsh words for Australia in her opening statement to the Human Rights Council.
Australia has not publicly responded to international criticism. But when asked by Devex how they were responding to U.N. reports, Ruston said they are working quietly to resolve the issue.
“We’re working very hard to try and resettle everybody into third-party countries. And we’re getting on with the job behind the scene and we’re not making a big fuss about it because we think that’s going to be the most effective way of being able to resettle these people.
“The most important thing is that we will never give the incentive to reignite any ideas by people smuggling groups that Australia is weak on its border force policy.”
Offers from New Zealand to take refugees are still on the table, along with legislation preventing subsequent entrance to Australia. Currently, New Zealand residents are allowed to live and work in Australia without a visa. Legislation preventing refugees in New Zealand from entering Australia would essentially create two classes of New Zealand citizens.
“We need, as politicians, to make sure that we don’t politicize international development.”— Anne Ruston, Australia assistant minister for international development and the Pacific
Ruston’s Australian aid priority
“I have put a lot of energy into getting my head around the Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme, both which I think provide huge opportunities. Firstly to deal with a labor shortage in Australia for particular areas like agriculture as well as other areas that use these workers,” she said.
“An opportunity to use these more broadly is very good. But it is also the opportunity for us to work with our Pacific neighbors to develop skills — we’re looking to assist with training to create skilled and semiskilled workers.”
Ruston calls them “amazing programs” that are a “win-win for Australian and Pacific island nations.” And she said there has been a huge increase in the level of interest coming out of many Pacific countries.
“I’m heading to Timor-Leste in a few weeks’ time and the number one thing they want us to talk about is how we can further development programs to support their labor mobility desires,” Ruston said. “I think it’s a really exciting opportunity for Australia and is very high on my list of priorities for the aid program to support.”
Gender too remains critical — following the ACFID conference, Ruston headed to South Africa and a meeting of the Indian Ocean Rim Association, where she will announce new funding of 750,000 Australian dollars ($540,255) over three years to support the work of UN Women in promoting the economic empowerment of women in the association’s member states. The new funding draws upon previous work between Australian and UN Women supporting the association’s countries.
“It’s tremendously important that this region has a group that focuses on regional issues and we are keen to be part of that. One of the pillars of our aid program is women and gender equity. And this is a natural fit,” Ruston said.
The issues of foreign policy and international development have grown rapidly within Australia, and while the media attention is new, she is hopeful it can be used positively to benefit Australia’s aid program.
“We need, as politicians, to make sure that we don’t politicize international development. It is a bipartisan and nonpolitical approach that governments have taken to this area that has enabled us to develop long-term and enduring relationships that we have with all of our international partners.”