A refugee deal with NZ after nine years of cruelty

Mar 26, 2022
Manus Island regional processing facility
Manus detainees' claims are still making their way through the courts. Image: Wikimedia Commons
The sickening cynicism of the Morrison government is never far from view.

It backflips and signs a deal in New Zealand, first mooted 9 years ago, that will see 450 refugees who were detained in the gulags of Manus Island and Nauru, resettled New Zealand. No doubt one of the reasons for accepting New Zealand’s humanitarian offer is that in key seats like Kooyong, Wentworth, North Sydney and others where smart independents are running, the running sore of the Coalition’s gross cruelty to refugees and asylum seekers is an issue that resonates.

And before we start lauding the Morrison government for finally ending the daily infliction of physical and mental harm on individuals who simply have done what Ukrainians are doing today that is, fleeing the horror of conflict for a secure life, note the words of the UN high Commissioner for Refugees representative Adrian Edwards who said that while the UNHCR welcomed the deal, “[w]ith 112 refugees and asylum seekers today on Nauru, and some 1,100 others in Australia, the arrangement will not be sufficient to cover the needs of all.”

So what is to become of those refugees and asylum seekers? Will detention in cheap hotels, lack of access to welfare, medical services and employment opportunities continue to be the order of the day? Hopefully the answer is no but it doesn’t look promising because if the Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews was genuinely turning over a new leaf in the compassion space she would be announcing that Nauru is closing, and all asylum seekers and refugees can be liberated from the chains that they are trapped in courtesy of government policies.

And let us not allow successive Australian governments, but particularly those that have come after the Gillard government first brokered the NZ deal in 2012, to be released from accountability for what they done to peoples’ lives.

Those men who were shunted by a politically desperate Rudd government in 2013, illegally as the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court found 3 years later, to Manus Island have suffered physical and mental harm, which in many cases, will last for the rest of their lives.  Similarly with those asylum seekers and refugees detained on the benighted, impoverished corrupt island of Nauru and in Australian detention facilities. The number of reports from mental health professionals I have read over the years in acting for asylum seekers and refugees which mentions a diagnosis of entrenched Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is appalling.

And what is worse the Commonwealth knew it was breaching its duty of care to these men, women and children. It has paid out between $150 to $200 million in settling civil claims brought by those whom it has detained. This includes the $70 million 2017 Victorian Supreme Court settlement for Manus detainees. Claims are still making their way through the courts and there is nothing stopping anyone who goes to New Zealand but whose health continues to suffer, from suing the Australian government for damages.

Perhaps the most galling aspect, and one that confirms the notion that one should be very suspicious of the Morrison government’s motivation in announcing this New Zealand agreement, is that back in late 2017 the Australian government and its client state, the PNG government, closed the Manus Island detention centre. Many refused to leave because they were, rightly as it turns out, fearful about being rehoused on the Island without any safety or security guarantees.

At that time there were calls from many, including myself, for New Zealand and PNG to work out a way to transfer some of the over 600 men to New Zealand. Then Immigration Minister Peter Dutton in his usual thuggish fashion warned New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government that while Canberra could not stop a deal both Port Moresby and Wellington “would have to think about other equities within the respective relationships,” and “would have to think about their relationship with Australia, or what impact that would have.” In other words, a none too subtle threat to PNG that the Australian funding deals with the impoverished nation would be in jeopardy, and that New Zealand might get the cold shoulder from the Australians.

Australia’s international reputation on human rights issues has been trashed since former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard manufactured the Tampa crisis in 2001. The number of reports from international and national agencies on the gross cruelty of Australia’s immigration detention regime would fill a sizeable bookcase, or these days, take up considerable space in someone’s Cloud. This election eve agreement is not going to restore that reputation. To do that would take an end to mandatory detention, a compassionate regional processing regime, and an apology to those impacted by what is nothing less than physical and psychological abuse meted out because it wins votes.

Greg Barns SC left the Liberal Party in 2002 in protest at asylum seeker policies and is a National Spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance.


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