FRANK BRENNAN. Close the camps now and stop the posturing.

Both the Turnbull government and the Shorten opposition are committed to ‘stopping the boats’. Tony Abbott’s mantra is now the political orthodoxy on both sides of the political aisle in Canberra. Labor knows it has no chance of winning an election unless its commitment to keeping the boats stopped is as firm as the government’s.

The political difference is no longer over stopping the boats. Both sides are committed to takebacks and turnbacks, usually to Indonesia, provided the practices of the Australian Border Force and defence forces are safe, legal and transparent. The political brawl is about keeping refugees on Nauru and Manus Island without a permanent solution, and the claim that this is a necessary precondition for keeping the boats stopped. 

Peter Dutton, the Minister for Many Things — Home Affairs, Immigration and Border Protection — smelt blood last week after Labor’s newest recruit in the House of Representatives, Ged Kearney, told Parliament in her first speech: ‘I doubt we can afford the ongoing cost to our national psyche of subjecting men, women and children to years of punitive indefinite detention. We must, as a priority, move the asylum seekers off Manus and Nauru to permanent resettlement and ensure that indefinite detention never happens again.’

Kearney was backed by Labor frontbencher Linda Burney when interviewed by David Speers on SkyNews. Labor then doctored the transcript to downplay the commitment to a deadline for emptying the camps on Nauru and Manus Island.

Then, following a death of a refugee on Manus Island, the Greens’ Adam Bandt had a go at Dutton in Question Time asking, ‘Is it now government policy to leak to the media about the death of someone under your care and not notify next of kin, and doesn’t this fundamental lack of human decency show that there’s simply no line you won’t cross?’

Dutton has no time for what he regards as the moral superiority of the Greens and the Labor Left when it comes to refugee policy. Taking the moral high ground, Dutton responded, ‘I haven’t put anyone on Manus Island; you did. I am charged with getting those people off, and I’m doing it. This government — not the government that you were in coalition with, the Rudd and the Gillard governments — has brokered a deal to get 1200 people off Manus and Nauru.’

With by-elections just around the corner, including a couple in which the sitting Labor members are on a knife edge, the government is keen to exploit any perception that the opposition parties in parliament are a threat to secure borders and an ordered migration program with strong community approval. The government even received some assistance late in the week from the disgraced Roman Quaedvlieg who had been sacked as Commissioner of the Border Force. He wrote an opinion piece for the Fairfax press declaring, ‘Labor needs to find a way to reconcile its internal policy differences and its policy language on this issue or it risks inviting another wave of boats to our borders and it will have to grapple with the consequences if it wins the forthcoming federal election.’

There are 939 refugees and asylum seekers still waiting in limbo on Nauru and 716 on Manus Island. This caseload includes 137 children. Most of them have now been there for almost five years. Having accepted 249 proven refugees in the last year, the USA is committed to taking up to another 1000. This will leave another 655 people to be resettled in third countries or to be returned to their home country. So the point of difference is merely over what is to become of these 655 people.

Quaedvlig told Fairfax that the US might be convinced to take more refugees ‘if the uplifts and settlements go smoothly’. Meanwhile Dutton says, ‘I don’t want to see anyone on Manus or Nauru. I want them off and we’ve brokered a deal with the US to take 1200 people. There are no other third countries who are immediately available. That’s the reality.’ But there is another third country available: New Zealand.

All three of New Zealand’s recent prime ministers have offered to take 150 refugees a year from the Pacific camps. When New Zealand has dealt directly with PNG repeating the offer, Australia has vetoed the suggestion on the basis that refugees resettled in New Zealand would be able to travel without a visa to Australia. Dutton continues to argue that this could send a message to the people smugglers. That was never a problem for John Howard when he accepted a similar New Zealand offer. The boats did not start up again.

At the Senate Estimates hearing last year, Air Vice Marshal Osborne, Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders Joint Agency Task Force, said, ‘Our ability to detect, intercept and turn back people smuggling boats is stronger than ever. We have a committed and highly capable civil maritime surveillance and border security response fleet with access to the combined resources of the Australian Border Force and the Australian Defence Force.’ At the Senate Estimates hearing last week, he told the Senate: ‘Our figures have not changed since the last estimates. We’ve intercepted 32 vessels’ since 2013 carrying 800 persons.

Even with the assurance that the majority of the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island will be resettled in the USA, the boats have not started coming again. The boats are stopped, not because refugees on Nauru and Manus Island are being treated badly but because the diplomatic arrangements with Indonesia are in place to stop the people smuggling networks in Java and because the Australian border forces have the resources at hand to engage in any necessary turnbacks and takebacks. There is now no way that Labor is wanting to unpick those diplomatic and security arrangements.

The point of difference now comes down to how promptly an Australian government will take up the New Zealand offer to empty the Pacific camps. Labor will do so promptly if elected. The Coalition wants to continue playing it safe, putting on continued hold the lives of those on Nauru and Manus Island who do not make the cut for the USA. No doubt there is some political advantage for the Coalition with this approach. But is it needed to retain the security of our borders?

If the movement of refugees to the USA is not a problem when it comes to maintaining the security cordon for stopping the boats, then why not simply amend the Australian migration regulations to require that any refugee from Nauru or Manus Island who resettles in New Zealand be required to obtain a visa to travel to Australia? Michael Pezzullo, Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, told Estimates last week, ‘The New Zealand offer is welcome, and it’s certainly been the subject of expressions of appreciation on the part of the Australian government, but unless and until that question of on-travel can be addressed and resolved — once we’re in a position to do that, it might be more possible to take up that offer.’

By week’s end, Dutton was conceding that the New Zealand offer might be accepted, even without such a change to the visa laws. When pressed on the New Zealand offer, he told journalists: ‘So at this point in time, maybe at some stage in the future when you are down to a small number of people, we aren’t at that stage.’

For the good of the refugees who have languished for five years on Nauru and Manus Island, and for the good of the Australian body politic, it’s time to put an end to this inhumane chapter in Australian history. Keep the boats stopped. Bring New Zealand into the mix now. Empty the camps. And fight your elections on matters of substance which don’t impose untold harm on defenceless children. Both Messrs Shorten and Turnbull need to acknowledge that Ged Kearney is right.

Frank Brennan SJ AO is CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.

First published in Eureka Street, 24 May 2018.

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5 Responses to FRANK BRENNAN. Close the camps now and stop the posturing.

  1. Frank Brennan says:

    There are about 550 Iranians waiting in PNG.

  2. Kevin Bain says:

    Pardon my forgetfulness Tasi Timor, but what was the quid pro quo that Indonesia got from Howard in 2006? What could be offered now?

  3. Frank Brennan says:

    The figures given by the department at the Estimates hearing on 21 May highlight the political cynicism and timidity in our Parliament about this issue at the moment.

    The US has agreed to take 1250 of the proven refugees on Nauru and Manus Island.

    The US has already taken 249 of the promised 1250. Here is the breakdown of those numbers: ‘Afghanistan—48 from Nauru and 39 from PNG. Bangladesh—five from Nauru and two from PNG. Cameroon—zero. India—six from Nauru and zero from PNG. Indonesia—one from Nauru. Iran—14 from Nauru and one from PNG. Lebanon—zero. Myanmar—four from Nauru and two from PNG. Pakistan—76 from Nauru and 16 from PNG. Somalia—seven from Nauru and two from PNG. Sri Lanka—28 from Nauru and zero from PNG. Stateless—73 from Nauru and 45 from PNG. Sudanese—zero from Nauru but three from PNG.’

    As I wrote in the article, once the US takes another 1001 proven refugees, ‘This will leave another 655 people to be resettled in third countries or to be returned to their home country. So the point of difference is merely over what is to become of these 655 people.’

    How many of those 655 will be proven refugees awaiting third country resettlement and how many will be persons found not to be refugees who then have no option but to return home? We don’t yet know. But I predict that very few of those remaining 655 will be proven refugees. We do know that 121 of them have already be rejected by the US, and 70 of those are from Iran. Here is the breakdown of the numbers rejected:

    ‘Afghanistan: Nauru 5; PNG 0. Bangladesh: Nauru 1; PNG 0. Cameroon: Nauru 1; PNG 0. India: Nauru and PNG 0. Indonesia: Nauru and PNG 0. Iran: Nauru 70; PNG 0. Iraq: Nauru 6; PNG 0. Lebanon: Nauru 2; PNG 0. Myanmar: Nauru 1; PNG 0. Pakistan: Nauru 8; PNG 0. Somalia: Nauru 15; PNG 0. Sri Lanka: Nauru 4; PNG 0. Stateless: Nauru 6; PNG 0. Sudan: Nauru 2; PNG 0.’

    There will be some proven refugees rejected by the US. But presumably most of those rejected by the US, particularly the single males from Iran, will not be classifiable as refugees. Iran will not take their nationals back until they go ‘voluntarily’. Only 1 Iranian from Manus Island has been resettled in the US. While 70 Iranians on Nauru have been rejected, there have not yet been any formal rejections of Iranians on Manus Island. This indicates that the Iranian caseload of single men on Manus Island is one of the last groups to be screened by the US. The department has informed the Senate: ‘The Iranians are still receiving positives, but these outcomes also aren’t disproportionate to the IMA case load onshore in terms of refusal rates. We see higher refusal rates amongst that cohort onshore.’

    On 8 May 2018, Ben Doherty writing in The Guardian said, ‘On Manus Island, the refugee and journalist Behrouz Boochani said all Iranians and Somalis were fearful they would be rejected. “There is huge worry in Nauru & Manus about US deal,” he wrote. “Many Iranian & Somali refugees in Nauru given rejection notices from US. It means US considers the countries banned. Its time for that the Home Affairs minister takes responsibility & makes his plan clear.”’

    Once the Iranian case load of non-refugees is deducted from the remaining 655, there will be only a handful of proven refugees awaiting resettlement. Both sides of politics should commit to clearing the caseload by the time the US has received its full quota of 1250. Why not bring NZ into the mix NOW? That’s the question for our politicians NOW. There will still remain the question as to how the rejected Iranians without a proven refugee claim can be returned home voluntarily. But that question will be more readily answered once the caseload of proven refugees (including children) is resettled.

  4. tasi timor says:

    ‘I cannot believe there is a valid excuse’

    When Howard allowed the remaining asylum seekers to go to NZ and brought the rest to Australia, there were just 50 0dd asylum seekers left in a camp on Sumbawa, in contrast to the +- 14,000 in Indonesia now. He was able to do it because of a temporary deal with elements in Jakarta, not because of a Pacific deterrent or turnbacks. Jakarta is perfectly capable of stopping their people smugglers, given the political will. If Turnbull and Dutton, and our best diplomats, have failed to forge a new acommodation with Jakarta, failure is a valid excuse. Failure however, is not something that politicians will ever admit to. Jakarta uses people smuggling as leverage. The questions media commentators never broach are why, what is the quid pro quo Jakarta seeks, is it in our interest to give it or not, why and why not.

  5. Linda Elliott says:

    An excellent article. How hard can it be to work out these simple visa arrangements between New Zealand and Australia? I would like Mr Dutton to explain to the Australian people why everything regarding the resettlement of these refugees takes such an unconscionably long time. I cannot believe there is a valid excuse.

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