Australia’s Desperate Refugee Obstinacy

[An article  by Roger Cohen reposted from the New York Times]

BYRON BAY, Australia — Now we know how desperate Australia is to close the shameful chapter in its history that has seen about 2,000 asylum-seekers and refugees — some now dead, most suffering from depressive disorders — dumped on two remote Pacific islands for four years.

“This is a big deal,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pleads to President Trump, alluding to the agreement under which the United States committed last year to take up to 1,250 of those confined on Manus and Nauru. “It is really, really important to us.”

To which Trump responds: “I think it is a horrible deal, a disgusting deal.” According to a transcript of the January conversation leaked to The Washington Post, Trump suggests it is “going to kill me.” He’ll look like a “dope.” He’s angry with Turnbull: “Putin was a pleasant call. This is ridiculous.”

Ah, yes: those pleasant Putin calls.

A disgusting deal! Some of the marooned migrants are Muslims, you see. They come from places like Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria and Myanmar. No matter how rigorously they are screened, that makes them ipso facto suspect to Trump, whose contested travel ban targets some of these countries. Plus, of course, President Barack Obama (ever the Muslim to many Trump supporters) made the deal.

Australia has reduced the men, women and children on the islands to namelessness, referring to them by registration numbers. Asked their names, kids often give a number. It’s all they know. At least the digits are not tattooed.

A country that long served as a British penal colony, where criminals were banished to the other side of the world, has adopted its own form of “offshore processing’’ in order to crush people, dehumanize them and render them invisible.

The migrants exist in limbo. They were promised a “process”; there has been none. During a weeklong visit to the Papua New Guinea island of Manus late last year, where more than 800 men fester, I found rampant desperation and inertia. These people are pawns of Australia’s decision to use cruelty as deterrent.

In unusually blunt criticism of a liberal democracy that is a signatory of major human rights conventions, Filippo Grandi, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, last month accused Australia of inflicting extensive “physical and psychological harm.” It has.

He said Australia had reneged on a commitment to reunite some asylum seekers with relatives already in the country. Australia has denied the charge. Since 2013, the government has been rigid: nobody confined on Manus or Nauru will ever settle in Australia. That, the country insists, is the only way to “stop the boats.”

I am not in the habit of praising Trump. The transcript reveals his usual crassness and prejudice as he tells Turnbull: “I guarantee you they are bad.” Every one of the refugees, in Trump’s tiny universe, is a would-be Boston bomber. But the president also probes the unsustainable contradictions of Australian policy. He asks why all these migrants are confined if they are, as Turnbull insists, not bad people.

It is painful to see Turnbull, a moderate conservative, saying not even “a Nobel Peace prize winner” who came by boat would be let in; that Australia will take people the United States wants out of the country rather than anyone on Manus and Nauru; that these are economic migrants (many are not; they have fled war or persecution); that in effect he can guarantee these people’s bona fides to the United States — he just can’t do the decent thing and admit them to Australia.

At a certain point rigidity becomes self-defeating. Australia has incurred a moral debt to people it has traumatized over these four years. This was implicitly recognized in the government’s settlement of a class-action lawsuit this year for $53 million.

Irrespective of future policy, Australia should admit the banished migrants now. They are a special case. Indonesian human traffickers will not be back in business because Turnbull decides an episode that dishonors Australia has to end.

A storm is brewing. Refugees are protesting peacefully in the Manus detention center. Power and water has been cut to one of the compounds, a signal of Australia’s intent to close the center soon. But then what?

Almost none of the refugees wants to stay in Papua New Guinea. Trump will drag his heels in honoring an accord he loathes. Tensions with locals are rising. Australia has no plan beyond pleading with Trump. Its obstinacy could soon bring further loss of life.

Peter Dutton, Australia’s own little Trump and the arch-conservative most vociferous in defense of the indefensible on Manus and Nauru, has just been promoted to head a new super-ministry combining the Australian Border Force, police and intelligence services. Turnbull wanted to shore up his right flank. He shored up stupidity.

As refugees have committed suicide, been killed or sexually abused, Dutton has dismissed them as illiterates bent on stealing Australian jobs. Another refugee, Hamed Shamshiripour, an Iranian, died this month on Manus, an apparent suicide. Now Dutton has more power to do his bigoted worst. I fear he may succeed before Turnbull’s “big deal” goes anywhere.

This article first appeared in the New York Times on 8 August 2017

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