Arja Keski-Nummi. Manus – “The Worst Angels of Our Nature” 

Apr 29, 2016

The PNG Supreme Court decision has again thrown into stark relief the bankrupt nature of Australia’s asylum policy and the disingenuous way that both sides use trite slogans such as “ saving lives” and not “starting up the people smuggling business” as justification for their cynical and inhumane policies.

People working with asylum seekers and who have processed and resettled refuges from within and outside of Australia have all urged Australian political parties to find a way to return to a bipartisan policy based on treating all people with dignity and common human decency, even if in the end they are not found to be refugees. But this has fallen on deaf ears.

Despite many experienced commentators in the past day offering reasonable policy advice and approach it is clear from the statements of both parties that they will not take such advice.

The scene has been set. Cynical political calculations ahead of a July election trump good policy or treating people humanely. Indeed, one could argue that there is a de facto bipartisan policy – one based on cruelty and selfishly inward looking in its intent.

Asylum policy does not change many votes, handling the economy, education, health and industrial relations does. However the Government knows it does them little harm to raise the spectre of uncontrolled boats. Equally the Opposition is stuck in its defence of its decision to reopen offshore processing centres and then, in the heat of an election campaign in 2013, to extend that to no resettlement in Australia.

This seismic shift in Australia’s asylum policies and its abrogation of any moral responsibility towards people who have reached its territory is deeply troubling. It is not clear that this genie can easily be put back into the lamp.

This unseemly debate sits uncomfortably with anyone who actually looks outward – we live in a interconnected world, more than ever people are on the move because of diminishing economic opportunities, civil war and other conflicts, environmental degradation and exploitation and a combination of all of these factors in any one cohort.

We should not be squabbling over 800 men stuck on Manus, shifting the responsibility to PNG and offering to throw money in their direction to make the problem go away. There are perfectly reasonable and common sense approaches to resolving the status of all those on Manus. The Howard government did just this with the remaining Nauru population in 2005-6.

There are over 50 million displaced people globally, Australia’s issues with asylum seekers does not amount to a hill of beans – so focused are we on Manus and Nauru that we have not yet honoured our small commitment to resettling Syrian refugees from the Middle East.

Both parties could make a difference by agreeing to take a reasonable bipartisan approach by working to resettle people found to be refugees and building a stronger regional cooperation framework – taking the politics out of an issue that demeans us all.

But this will not happen, because both major parties are focused on narrow, immediate political gain.

Arja Keski-Nummi was formerly First Assistant Secretary in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. Her primary responsibility was in the field of humanitarian and refugee programs.


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