Not with a bang but a whimper. Rather than have the legislation defeated on the floor of parliament, Julia Gillard withdrew the Migration Act amendments that would have allowed Labor to implement the Malaysia Agreement.
But the amendments have not gone for good. They remain “before the parliament” so they can be re-introduced at any time Gillard thinks she might get the numbers. We also know that significant sections of the Labor Cabinet, including Immigration Minister Chris Bowen (and more shamefully the Labor Left’s Anthony Albanese) were in favour of offering to re-open Nauru as a way of securing Liberal support for Labor’s amendments. These people are no friends of refugees.
It is a strange situation—on the one hand third country processing, in Malaysia or Nauru or anywhere else, remains unlawful. The government has no choice but to process asylum seekers in Australia.
On the other hand, both Labor and Liberal parties are committed to third country processing. Gillard says she will seek a mandate for the Malaysia Solution at the next election, which could be up to two years away. So, whichever party wins that election, third country processing will likely be back on the agenda. In the meantime, far from asylum boats being welcomed, both parties are still involved in a race to the bottom over which party has the best policy to stop the boats.
The movement cannot afford to be complacent. It has two years to campaign against Malaysia and Nauru. Most importantly it has to campaign hard to put the focus on the Australian government’s abuse of human rights in its own detention centres—and free the refugees.
No shift on detention
There is a danger that the refugee movement will be disarmed by the government’s declared shift to on-shore processing.
But it is precisely onshore processing that has created the hideous toll of self-harm and attempted suicide as thousands of asylum seekers languish in detention.
Despite throw-away comments from Immigration Minister Chris Bowen that there might be an increased use of bridging visas and community detention to relieve crowding in immigration detention, the proposal was heavily qualified. There is no general move by the government to adopt any form of community processing, using bridging visas to release people to live and work in the community while their claims are processed.
The government also remains committed to offshore processing on Christmas Island, which means that asylum seekers who arrive by boat will continue to be processed under off-shore arrangements which are discriminatory and open to political interference. Fully 75 per cent of initial asylum rejections are overturned on review. But this can take months, a year, or longer after the initial hearing.
Over 1500 people who have been found to be refugees are waiting in detention for ASIO security clearances, although ASIO told recent Senate Estimates hearings that they do not require refugees to remain in detention while they carry out security checks.
There can be no compromise with the pillars of Howard’s and now Labor’s anti-refugee policy. The campaign needs to redouble its efforts to end mandatory detention and offshore processing.
A Four Corners program, “Asylum”, has helped lift the lid on the culture of abuse that exists inside the detention centres run by Serco and the Immigration Department.
Chris Bowen has admitted he has the power to use bridging visas to release asylum seekers, but he is doing nothing to make it happen. Left to Julia Gillard and Chris Bowen, it will be business as usual.
Hundreds of Iranian and stateless asylum seekers remain trapped in soul-destroying detention although the government knows it cannot return them.
Worse, as the processing grinds away more Afghan and Tamil asylum seekers inch closer to the time when the government is able to deport them. But neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan is safe.
As Solidarity goes to press, two Rohingyan refugees are staging a rooftop protest at the Darwin detention centre. Found to refugees, they have been in detention two years waiting for security clearances.
These are two more reasons, among many, to demand that Labor frees the refugees.