One month after the PNG solution was announced, almost 3000 asylum seekers had arrived in Australia. Only around 300 of them have been sent to Manus Island. At best the government claims it could house 600, all living in tents.
Semi-permanent buildings are still months away. Christmas Island is getting more crowded by the day as it becomes a holding pen for those the government claims will never be settled in Australia.
The government is gambling that it can hold the PNG deal together until the election before it collapses. Attorney General Mark Dreyfus was reported saying that Labor did not know whether the policy was going to work.
Rudd has had to lean on the PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill to “clarify” his comments, after he stated unequivocally that, “There is no agreement that all genuine refugees will be settled in PNG.”
O’Neill also said that while PNG was willing to assist with resettling refugees, the country could only take “our quota … we will take what we think we are able to assist”.
O’Neill says that to stay in PNG, refugees will have to qualify for citizenship. But to do that involves “eight years’ residence and demonstrating some level of understanding of our culture and at least one of our languages. If they don’t qualify for citizenship, then they come under the jurisdiction of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. They will have to go somewhere else.”
It is also becoming clearer that it will prove extremely difficult for the government to send children and family groups to Manus Island. The problems with malaria are just too difficult to overcome—neither children, nor pregnant women can safely take the anti-malaria medication.
The government now claims to have located a site on Manus Island for a detention centre for up to 10,000. But for over a year they claimed to have a site near the main township on Manus and nothing came of that.
Besides the obvious problems with under-development (see page 20), PNG is not a place to resettle refugees safely.
Homosexuality is illegal, raising extremely serious questions about how LGBT asylum seekers fleeing persecution could safely live in PNG.
There are doubts that PNG even has any refugee determination process. For almost a year asylum seekers were on Manus Island without any refugee assessments starting.
Political opposition to the PNG deal is also growing. The student protests in early August look to be just the beginning of a more widespread campaign.
The inability to send children or family groups to Manus Island has also been a major blow to Immigration Minister Tony Burke’s insistence that there would be no exemptions for any group of asylum seekers on being sent offshore.
As the PNG solution started to fray, Rudd attempted to stitch up an extended deal with Nauru. Rudd claimed that Nauru would resettle asylum seekers found to be refugees. Then the claim was flatly dismissed by Nauru’s official spokeswoman, who said “people found to be refugees would not be entitled to Nauruan citizenship or permanent settlement”.
Desperate to show that the expulsion policy is holding together, the Labor government has sent the first family groups, all Iranian, to Nauru—14 adults and 12 children. It is a disgraceful election ploy. The government calls it “appropriate accommodation” but the families are being housed in white marquees on an isolated moonscape of a bare, recently bulldozed area in the middle of the island.
Paving the way for Abbott
Not to be outdone by Rudd’s cruel PNG deal, Abbott has announced his own set of vicious policies for the 30,000 or so asylum seekers left in limbo in Australia.
Under the Coalition, refugees will only be granted Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) for up to three years; meaning they will be denied family reunion and the right to travel.
While TPV holders will have the right to work, any TPVs who are on benefits will have to “work for the dole”.
Abbott also says he wants to remove court appeal rights as part of streamlining the refugee determination process, a move that could see a Coalition government cancel the bridging visas of people living in the community and take them back into detention.
Refugees are just one more reason to put the Liberals last in this election. But it is Rudd’s lurch to the right that has encouraged even more inhumane policies from the Coalition. To stop the rot, we need to fight to close Manus Island and Nauru and free the refugees.
By Ian Rintoul