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Issue #1804      November 22, 2017

Taking Issue – Peter Mac

A tragic failure

Hundreds of people remain indefinitely in the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres because the Turnbull government believes that anyone trying to reach Australia by boat must be punished by preventing them from ever settling here.

The only options open to asylum seekers under this policy are to return to the dangerous conditions in the countries from which they fled, (a process known as refoulement, prohibited under the UN Refugee Convention to which Australia is a signatory), or to accept the bleak prospect of resettlement in developing nations, including Papua New Guinea.

Only a few refugees have been resettled in Papua New Guinea. The government rejected New Zealand’s offer to take 150, arguing that asylum seekers might come here as New Zealand citizens and then, horror of horrors, apply for Australian citizenship.

It’s still unclear whether the US will take any of the Nauru or Manus Island detainees, as promised by former US President Obama. Other developed countries have their own commitments to resettle defined numbers of asylum seekers, and they don’t share the Australian government’s vindictive obsession with people who arrive unannounced by boat, so they’re unlikely to accept any of our detainees.

The government claims its boat turn-back policy has prevented loss of asylum seeker lives at sea. However, hundreds of asylum seekers who arrived before the policy was introduced have been imprisoned indefinitely, and the offshore detention policy has left an appalling stain on our national human rights reputation.

A humane alternative

The number of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia is a tiny fraction of the world’s 65.6 million displaced people, of whom 22.5 million are refugees, i.e. people forced to leave their countries of citizenship, and 10 million are stateless. Approximately 40 million are “internally displaced persons”, i.e. refugees in their own country, some of whom are “people in refugee-like situations”, stateless or unprotected by the government of their countries of residence.

Most are victims of war; 5.5 million have come from Syria, 2.5 million from Afghanistan and 1.4 million from South Sudan. The number of displaced persons fleeing droughts and other extreme weather events is rising. The impact of climate change and wars over water and agricultural resources are likely to magnify the current number of displaced persons this century.

The Australian government has ignored humane options to its current policies regarding asylum seekers.

An alternative approach recommended by asylum seeker advocate Julian Burnside is to establish processing centres in countries from which asylum seekers set off to reach Australia, to give asylum seekers written guarantees that their applications would be given serious and fair consideration, and to pay for air flights to Australia by successful applicants.

That approach would minimise the risk of asylum seekers setting out on highly dangerous sea voyages. It would also cut the current cost of accommodating asylum seekers by between 40 and 97 percent. Detaining one asylum seeker on Manus Island or Nauru costs $400,000 per annum, compared to $239,000 for detention in Australia, or just $12,000 if the asylum seeker lives in the Australian community.

However, the coalition parties are most unlikely to change the policy of detaining indefinitely people who have come here by boat seeking asylum.

Two detainees have committed suicide over the last two months. If more of them die, the major parties may be forced to adopt an approach that actually conforms to the requirements of the Refugee Convention, to which Australia is already a signatory.

But for hundreds of asylum seekers the cost will have been imprisonment, injury or loss of life. It’s time for us to dump the Turnbull government and introduce humane alternatives to our current asylum seeker policies.

Descending into nightmare

The Turnbull government’s immigration policies have become a nightmare. As we go to press more than 400 men are still occupying the Manus Island detention centre, which was closed at the beginning of November. They have refused to move out even though they had no food, running water, shelter, sanitation or medication, because the unguarded new accommodation in a nearby village is incomplete and would provide no security.

The detainees have been subjected to numerous attacks by some local residents. The immigration deal between Papua New Guinea and Australia has resulted in hundreds of asylum seekers being kept in guarded compounds in the midst of local communities. Residents and detainees have no common language, and the little contact they have is clouded by ignorance, suspicion and fear. The detainees have lost touch with their families, and any contact between detainees and local women arouses bitter resentment among local families.

In a recent discussion with Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull, US President Trump declared that because the detainees on Manus Island and Nauru are being kept in prison they must be violent criminals. That unjust conclusion is shared by many residents of the offshore host countries.

Other factors contribute to the antagonism. The UN has called on Australia to provide basic shelter, food, water and sanitation for detainees who refused to move from the Manus Island centre. Detainees normally receive those services, as well as education and medical treatment.

But many residents of developing nations don’t have access to those services at a basic level. Some local residents therefore see the detainees as violent criminals who don’t have to work, enjoy privileges, don’t share the local language and culture, and have been thrust into their communities without their consent.

Nevertheless, after the detainees refused to leave the detention centre local people tried to bring them food. Soldiers blocked them, but local residents subsequently managed to smuggle some food in, saving the detainees from starvation and demonstrating the power of simple human compassion over political opportunism.

Next article – Deep concern

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