Labor has re-opened one of the darkest chapters in Australia’s history of refugee policies. In a final capitulation, Julia Gillard has embraced the Howard government’s Pacific Solution, forcing laws through parliament with the support of the Coalition to immediately reopen offshore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island.
Gillard has achieved the despicable honour of implementing a policy that is crueller than Howard’s. The legislation allows indefinite detention on Nauru and Manus Island—and Gillard is already talking about “four or five years” of punishment for asylum seekers, or in her words, detention long enough to “equalise treatment” with the wait for resettlement in Indonesia or Malaysia.
She says the detention centres could be up and running within a month and is even sending the army to Nauru to begin resurrecting the camps. In a display of sheer mercilessness, Chris Bowen has declared that any asylum seeker comes after 4.45pm on Monday 13 of July, the day of the announcement, may be subject to the new arrangements.
The government’s fake humanitarian concern about lives at sea cannot conceal that this is what Gillard has wanted all along: a ruthless fix to “stop the boats”. Gillard’s “expert panel” was stacked not with refugee experts, but with border protection ones: former Defence Force chief Angus Houston, Professor Michael l’Estrange, a Liberal Party insider and confidant of John Howard, and Paris Aristotle, a member of Howard’s Immigration Detention Advisory Group.
It was no surprise that it recommended offshore processing. It did embarrass the government by finding its Malaysia Agreement did not contain sufficient human rights safeguards. While discussions on Malaysia will continue, the plan is off the cards in the immediate future. But it has provided the political cover for Gillard to adopt the policies of the Coalition.
Gillard has dismissed human rights concerns about the policy, which have been raised by a plethora of refugee and advocacy groups, saying, “what’s harder is watching people drown.” But it is the government’s own “stop the boats” policies that have caused the drownings.
Australia’s search-and-rescue efforts for asylum boats have been subordinated to a callous disregard for the lives of asylum seekers—like telling boats to go back to Indonesia, where refugees face Australian-funded Indonesian prisons. Or the scandalous 36 hours that Australian authorities spent sitting on their hands in June, knowing a boat was in distress. That cost 90 lives.
The Sydney Morning Herald has revealed that a boat of 67 refugees, many of them Palestinian, has been lost at sea since late July. Australian authorities did nothing in response to panicked calls from relatives for up to three weeks.
There is plenty that could be done to stop the boat tragedies if the government abandoned its “Fortress Australia” mentality. Yet the expert panel refused to consider proposals to decriminalise people smuggling. It is not illegal to use such irregular travel networks to seek asylum—and should not be illegal to organise the boats either. Criminalising people smuggling, combined with Australian authorities sinking or burning the boats that do make it to Australia, means unsafe vessels not fully prepared for the trip are used.
One of the few positive expert panel recommendations was to increase resettlement of asylum seekers directly from Indonesia and Malaysia, to give asylum seekers there a realistic alternative to getting on a boat. But the government has ignored this, simply saying it supports increasing the refugee intake “in principle”, saying that it is too expensive at the same time they are preparing to pour $1.4 billion into a detention camp on Nauru. This is no different to the vague “aspiration” Immigration Minister Chris Bowen gave to do this last year, and leaves the roughly 3800 asylum seekers currently in Indonesia in limbo.
The government is peddling the myth that there is some kind of “orderly queue” for refugees and that those who come by boat are “queue jumpers” to justify their policy of deterrence. The fact is refugee resettlement from camps overseas is more a ticket in a lottery than a place in a queue. Less than 1 per cent of the world’s refugees are resettled in any one year. If they all joined a “queue” the wait would be 135 years.
Just as under Howard, Gillard’s cruelty will not stop refugees from attempting to reach safety in Australia. Deterrent policies can never work unless the Australian government becomes more ruthless and brutal than the regimes refugees are fleeing.
But off-shore processing will it make getting refugee status tortuously slow and inflict mental anguish and misery on some of the most vulnerable people in the world.
The last detainee on Manus Island, Aladdin Sisalem, has spoken out, explaining how the offshore detention centres are factories for mental illness: “When you see that a government watched by the world can do this to you, you can be jailed for infinity, and no one can do anything about it, you’re under a great injustice and [don’t] even know how long you will be in this jail and what’s going to happen to you after.
“One day, or two days, or even after two years, you end up having a breakdown or a trauma, post-traumatic stress and other psychological issues. You have to live with it for the rest of your life.”
A former UN Human Rights Commission Secretary, John Pace, visited Nauru in 2001 for Amnesty International and reported, “Conditions are harsh, with the heat and the humidity in the upper thirties, and health conditions are basic.”
One ageing desalination plant provides the island’s only water. Refugee advocate Phil Glendenning, told the ABC that when he visited Nauru in 2010, it, “was off between 9:00am and 5:00pm… [people] were unable to flush toilets in those hours”.
This whole horrible episode is showing that there is no parliamentary solution to refugee bashing. While The Greens have rightly opposed what the government is doing, in parliament, they were powerless to stop the legislation going through in parliament with bipartisan Labor and Liberal support.
Now, just as was done under the Howard government, we need to build a refugee rights movement strong enough to force the government to retreat. Only that can close this ugly chapter in refugee politics once and for all.