‘Human beings are never a means to an end. They are an end in themselves’. Emmanuel Kant’s words in the seventeenth century echo down the centuries in stark contrast to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru and Manus Island. The recent Four Corners program, The Forgotten Children gave Australians an all too rare opportunity to hear from the refugee children of Nauru themselves, and to see for ourselves what is being done in our name.
Two days ago a young asylum seeker rose early, turned on his computer and read that the Government was preparing to ban all post-July 2013 boat arrivals from ever entering Australia under any circumstances. He went to his bathroom and swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. He is one of the 30,000 asylum seekers in the community without rights or resolution to his case.
Today he lies in a Sydney hospital. The hope that sustained him for so long from his escape from the Taliban to the dangerous journey to Australia has been extinguished – as it has been with the forgotten children.
The devastating impact of these policies of incarceration and punishment on innocent people has to stop.
Since 1946 Australia has resettled more than 850,000 refugees. They have made a remarkable contribution to our country. Despite this, the current Government’s proposal to ban boat arrivals from ever entering Australia would mean great Australians like Anh Do, Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta and South Australian Governor, Hieu Van Le, would never be permitted into the country if they arrived today.
We treat asylum seekers and refugees who arrive by boat as if we were at war with them.
Amnesty International reports that Australia’s system discriminates and punishes, and in some cases, ‘tortures’ people who came to us seeking safety and protection. There are around 1200 people on Nauru (including 128 children), a further 920 on Manus, and the 30,000 in the Australian community denied access to legal assistance, medical care and education. They are all trapped in an interminable limbo.
The Nauru Files, released by the Guardian, reported over 2000 cases of physical abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, rape, and 59 incidents of child abuse, including child sexual abuse. For many refugees on Nauru, this sorry story means that life is characterised by fear and uncertainty.
This is certainly the case for Mahomood (name changed), and her 8 year old daughter (who has now spent almost half her life on Nauru). Although recognised as a refugee Mahomood lives on a 3 year visa, a Nauruan passport lists her identity as ‘refugee’.
Mahomood and her daughter live in a remote camp. She is too scared to go out for food following an attack by two men on motorbikes as she walked to town to collect groceries. Her life is a two by four metre, plywood walled, tin roofed shack. She spends most of the day crying – she says she has lost all hope.
The tragic irony of this is that Mahomood came on the same boat as her brother. Today he lives in Sydney’s south, married to an Australian woman and they are expecting their first baby.
These centres are established by the Australian Government, they are funded by the taxes we pay. They operate under extreme secrecy. There is no transparency, no accountability, no independent monitoring. But the cruelty is plain to see. It is writ large on the faces of the forgotten children.
This whole sorry episode in our history has to be brought to an end.
The Immediate Priority
The priority right now must be to get people off Nauru and Manus.
The policy of turning around boats at sea is deeply problematic, most likely illegal, and dangerous, especially with its potential risk to life and the very real possibility of refoulement.
However, the current political reality is that despite the dangers of the turn-back policy and the need to one day replace it with something ethical and consistent with our international obligations, both major parties currently support the policy. It is not something that will change in the short-term.
But what can be done in the short-term, and what is achievable, is for the suffering and cruelty on Nauru and Manus to end, and for the 30,000 asylum seekers in limbo Australia to be given a permanent solution. Boats are not arriving in Australia. There is absolutely no need to prolong the suffering of those on Nauru and Manus for one day longer. They should be brought to Australia.
However, the Government and Opposition talk of third country options. If this is to happen then firstly, these need to be credible options – nations that are experienced at resettling refugees and with a long-established capacity to do so – countries like the United States, Canada, Sweden and of course, New Zealand. Secondly, there needs to be a time limit – if the Government is unable to settle people in nations like these by the end of 2016, then they must be brought to Australia.
A Regional Solution
With Nauru and Manus empty, the next step will be to pivot to a realistic regional processing framework in cooperation with Indonesia, Malaysia, UNHCR and other relevant organisations. With the offshore processing camps empty, Australia would have ample resources available to re-allocate to the region and help people seeking asylum before they are forced into a boat.
Such measures would include: assistance for access to work, education and health rights whilst claims are processed in the region; increase the annual refugee intake to at least 30,000 and moving to 40,000; increase support for the UNHCR for assessing claims in the region in a timely manner; and, for more resources and diplomatic efforts to be put into the two other ‘durable solutions’ the UNHCR speaks of – a peaceful return to country of origin when it is safe to do so, and integration into the countries closer to the conflict zone.
Also, when the cruelty has ended and with a comprehensive regional processing framework in place, Australia’s military could be used for the positive purpose of search and rescue, rather than forcing boats back out to sea.
The current policy of punishment and deterrence has moved Australia further away from engaging in the real global challenge of assisting the 65 million people who are displaced. Last year there were 24 million people recognised as refugees – just 107,000 of these people were resettled: that is less than one percent of the global population of refugees.
Our fixation with securing our borders renders us unable to engage meaningfully in working with the international community to tackle the root causes of displacement and ensure the people that do flee their country can live with dignity in the places they flee too. That the parents can work legally, the children can access school and health care is freely available.
Also, all research indicates that when refugees receive permanent protection they make a sustained positive contribution to the life of their new nation. Any notion of banning former refugees from Australia for all time, even if they are Canadian, New Zealand or US citizens, is a ludicrous proposition and indicative of the sorry state Australia has been reduced to.
These 24 million refugees, the population of Australia – are not just numbers. They are human beings. They are brothers, fathers, sisters, mothers, friends, they are children. More than half are children. They include Mahomood and her daughter. They include a young asylum seeker in a Sydney hospital.
Emmanuel Kant was right. None of these people were, or are, a means to an end. All of them are an end in themselves. The wrong done to them must be righted, the cruelty must stop and this sorry chapter in Australian history must be closed. We have seen the children. They, and we, can no longer allow them and their families to continue to be forgotten.
Phil Glendenning is Director of the Edmund Rice Centre and President of the Refugee Council of Australia
See also press release yesterday from Mr Thomas Albrecht, UNHCR’s Regional Representative in Canberra, who is “profoundly concerned about the Bill announced yesterday by the Australian Government, seeking to indefinitely prevent refugees who arrive by sea, from obtaining protection in Australia.” John Menadue.
31 October 2016
UNHCR is profoundly concerned about the Bill announced yesterday by the Australian Government, seeking to indefinitely prevent refugees who arrive by sea from obtaining protection in Australia.
Mr Thomas Albrecht, UNHCR’s Regional Representative in Canberra, Australia, stated “Seeking asylum is not ‘illegal’. Refugees need and deserve protection and respect. The basic human right of every person to seek asylum from persecution is not diminished by their mode of arrival. Those forced to flee persecution need and deserve conducive conditions of protection, and a sustainable long-term solution.”
Asylum-seekers should have their claims processed in the territory of the State from which asylum is sought or which otherwise has jurisdiction over them.
Australia retains responsibility for refugees and asylum seekers, even where they are transferred to another State under bilateral arrangements. Where transfer arrangements are used, Australia retains the obligation to ensure their well-being and to find adequate long-term solutions for those found to be refugees.