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Issue #1603      July 24, 2013

Savage asylum seeker scheme failing already

The Rudd government’s vindictive scheme to transfer to Papua New Guinea all asylum seekers who arrive in Australian territory by boat is already running into severe difficulties.

Protests against Rudd’s PNG “solution” were held around Australia – see here for the rally held in Perth. (Photo: Richard Titelius)

Under the scheme those asylum seekers would be prohibited from resettling in Australia. Among them, some who already have refugee status or who might gain it after processing, would be granted asylum in Papua New Guinea, but would never be allowed to settle in Australia.

Those whose applications are unsuccessful would either be sent back to their home countries, or else to another country which is willing to accept them and where they would, according to the government, be safe.

The scheme has virtually thrown out Australia’s obligations under the UN Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory. It is even more cruel and repressive than the infamous “Pacific Solution” introduced by former Prime Minister John Howard.

Under the scheme, which is deemed to operate from last Friday July 19, there is no limit to the number of people who would be transferred to PNG, but the arrangement is to be reviewed in a year’s time.

Introduction of the scheme has also been accompanied by an agreement with the Indonesian government to cease issuing visas to Iranian asylum seekers. Iranians have made up a third of the 15,610 asylum seekers who have arrived in Australian waters this year.

Most of the PNG detainees would be held on Manus Island. Currently 145 people are being held there, but under the scheme the centre would be enlarged to accommodate up to 3,000 people.

Rudd’s announcement prompted riots at the asylum seeker centre on Nauru, where many detainees escaped from the centre. The conditions there are appalling and the detainees have no idea when or if they will ever be released. No applications for asylum have been processed since last August, and some detainees have been held for almost five years.

Reactions

Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s initial reaction on Friday was to cautiously welcome the policy, with a degree of grudging admiration. He described it as “a very promising development in offshore processing”, but declared grumpily: “I welcome it, but it won’t work under Mr Rudd.”

However, the next day he rejected the scheme altogether, declaring that a Coalition government would never outsource the asylum seeker problem, that it is Australia’s responsibility. He said the scheme was held together with “sticky tape and blue-tac” and was primarily intended to last until the upcoming federal elections and to boost Labor’s chances.

He’s right of course, but the Coalition’s position is nevertheless grossly hypocritical. The policies of the two biggest political parties are equally driven by their opportunist desire to win power at the coming elections.

By opposing the PNG scheme the Coalition is chasing votes by appearing to take the high moral ground, a tactic they used successfully during Labor’s abortive attempt to impose the vindictive “Malaysian solution”.

That scheme was rejected after a High Court challenge led by Barrister David Manne, who has described the PNG policy as “a clear cut violation of Australia’s obligations to refugees.” He has pointed out that Australia currently hosts only 0.3 percent of the world’s refugees. Some 43 million people are now displaced around the world.

Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser is said to be backing a Greens candidate for a Melbourne federal seat. He described the “PNG Solution” as “an abdication of Australia’s responsibilities and … of our basic humanity”.

Harsh reality

There is a strong probability that the PNG scheme will fail because it is highly vulnerable to rejection under a court challenge, and because of opposition within PNG, and within Labor’s ranks.

The UN Refugee Convention obliges individual signatory nations like Australia to accept those with verified refugees status, and not to foist the responsibility off onto other countries, let alone an impoverished neighbour.

Papua-New Guinea is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, which the Rudd government doubtless thinks will weigh in its favour with regard to the UN’s reaction to the scheme. However, the Convention requires signatory nations to provide a safe environment for asylum seekers, whereas PNG is desperately poor, and has such a high rate of crime that the government advises travellers to PNG to take extreme care during their stay. It also has a high rate of unemployment.

If a legal challenge to the PNG scheme is launched in Australia, the court might find that by instigating the transfer scheme Australia has been responsible for or complicit in a breach of the Convention.

Moreover, the standard of accommodation and education facilities required by the UN for asylum seeker detainees is higher than what is currently enjoyed by most PNG citizens, and far higher than the PNG government provides for its own detainees to date.

The majority of the asylum seekers who are likely to be detained there are Muslims, whereas most PNG citizens are Christians. And if the PNG government does actually accommodate the asylum seekers in accordance with the convention’s required standards, the reaction from the ordinary people of Papua New Guinea is likely to be highly explosive.

Moreover, PNG will not be able to meet the required standard without enormous economic assistance from the Rudd government. That’s in addition to the extra aid that the government has already promised as part of the deal, in what is widely seen as a blatant bribe to the PNG government. Implementation of the scheme is likely to be fantastically expensive.

The Rudd government has pinned its election hopes in large part on the new asylum seeker policy, but even this may backfire. The policy will undoubtedly be welcomed by some sections of the electorate, but there have already been rumblings of disquiet among Labor ranks about the moral implications of the scheme, and the President of the Victorian Branch of the ALP has expressed concerns about the possible loss of votes in inner city electorates to the Greens, because of the policy.

Tasmanian human rights lawyer Greg Barns has also pointed out that the UN Convention makes no discrimination according to mode of arrival. However, the PNG scheme is intended to apply only to those who arrive by boat, while those arriving by plane would be unaffected by the policy.

Mr Barns commented: “Effectively you’ve got a form of discrimination. 50,000 of them who come in every year on planes will be treated in a certain way, those who come by boat won’t be.”

Rudd has suggested that the government might try to get the UN Refugee Convention modified to suit its needs. But that’s a virtually impossible task, given that most nations are relatively poor and would be decidedly unsympathetic. The government could even renounce the Convention, but this would invite world-wide condemnation.

On the other hand it could abort the PNG scheme, and use different methods to reduce the number of asylum seekers who take to the sea in leaky boats. It could, as a number of Afghan asylum seekers in Indonesia have suggested, fund the UN to boost its presence in Indonesia, to hasten determination of the refugee status of detainees there.

It could also invite applications for asylum from detainees in transit countries and provide them with written assurances that their applications would be given fair and serious consideration.

And they could act on the suggestion of human rights lawyer Julian Burnside, and promise to fly them to an Australian metropolitan detention centre for processing of their applications. This would undoubtedly be the most humane solution to the current appalling policy mess, and probably the cheapest but not one the government is prepared to consider.

It has its sights set on winning the upcoming elections and believes that outdoing the Coalition on asylum seekers with a far more inhumane policy will win it votes in key marginal seats.

This reinforces the urgency of building a left and progressive movement that is capable of breaking the stranglehold of the two major parties in the parliamentary system. At the forthcoming elections it is important to support left and progressive candidates and maximise support for the Greens to prevent either major party having a majority.

And that’s something we should all work hard to achieve along with fighting for a humane asylum seeker policy.   

Next article – Editorial – War “Games” blunder compounds Barrier Reef crisis

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