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Issue #1719      February 17, 2016

Editorial

Challenge to asylum seeker policy

The High Court of Australia’s recent validation of legislation concerning off-shore processing of asylum applications was a bitter disappointment to those who oppose the federal government’s ruthless treatment of asylum seekers.

But the moral responsibility lies not with the Court but with the government, which framed the legislation, and with the Labor Party, which entered into a bipartisan arrangement to pass it. And the new law is retrospective, an appalling precedent that sets the scene for the future victimisation of individuals and minority groups.

However, a storm of protest has now broken out over the government’s proposal to fly 267 asylum seekers (including almost 100 children, of whom 37 are babies) from Australia, where they had been receiving medical treatment, back to the nauseatingly primitive and dangerous Nauru detention centre.

Coalition and Labor premiers from five states have now offered sanctuary to those asylum seekers, and religious leaders from 44 churches, 5 cathedrals and 21 mosques have followed the ancient tradition of offering them sanctuary within their places of worship.

Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek was the only Labor MP to respond to a letter sent recently to all parliamentarians by a group of 900 academics concerned over the issue. She has now described asylum seeker politics as “toxic” and called for the release of all children from mainland and offshore centres.

Staff at one Brisbane hospital have refused to discharge an asylum seeker child because they would be sent back to Nauru. Doctors and other professionals stationed in the off-shore centres have risked prosecution by revealing the grim reality about the detention centres.

Asked whether the government would send the 267 asylum seekers back, an obviously uncomfortable Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton replied that each case would be examined individually. But that answer is significant, because allowing any of them to stay would undermine the vicious policy adopted by Labor and the Coalition, that no asylum seeker who arrived by boat would ever be allowed to remain in Australia.

The United Nations has criticised successive Australian governments for their treatment of asylum seekers, including the cynical and very expensive practice of trying to resettle them in neighbouring countries. (It cost us $55 million to persuade four asylum seekers to resettle in Cambodia).

Australia’s Commission for Human Rights has declared that our immigration policies seriously breach the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Despite the government’s policy of banning journalists from Nauru and Manus Island, there has been a constant series of reports of terrible effects on asylum seekers detained there, with multiple cases of sexual and physical assault, self-harm and attempted suicide.

And that includes children. One paediatrician has revealed that a report of sexual assault is made every 13 days, and most of the victims are children. In November medical personnel reported that they had never seen worse cases of childhood trauma, that the results from one mass trauma screening test were “higher than any published results … anywhere in the world”, and that 95 percent of the child detainees were likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. In response, the Australian government declared it intended to build the children some new playground equipment!

The security firm managing the offshore centres has recently changed its business name and may not renew its contract next year because of the possibility of future legal action by detainees. The Nauruan government last year promised to complete processing 600 outstanding applications for asylum within a week, but so far only 63 have been completed.

In the past, the coalition and Labor have dismissed criticism of the appalling asylum seeker policies. But they cannot do so now, with serious splits occurring within their own ranks. They will doubtless try to paper over the cracks with minor amendments, but that won’t work.

Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers is a national disgrace, equivalent to the odious white Australia and stolen generation policies. The coalition and Labor must dump off-shore processing and mandatory detention, and adopt humane policies in keeping with our international obligations. There is a growing community movement demanding it.

Next article – Community union solidarity

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