FRANK BRENNAN. The bi-partisanship shame of refugee policy

Aug 3, 2017

What possessed Filippo Grandi, the relatively new United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to go public last week, having a go at Australia for our government’s treatment of unvisaed asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat? He repeated UNHCR’s demand that Australia terminate offshore processing of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island and that we not outsource our responsibilities to others

He claimed that UNHCR had agreed to the Australia-US deal back in November 2016 ‘on the clear understanding that vulnerable refugees with close family ties in Australia would ultimately be allowed to settle’ here. It is very rare for the Commissioner himself to make such public criticisms of any country.

No doubt, his Australian officers would have cautioned him that any such statement would be grist to the mill of Minister Peter Dutton preparing to take on his new super-ministry of Home Affairs. The timing of the statement also caused grief to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten who was coming under pressure with the lead up to the ALP’s New South Wales conference at which the Left was to agitate the settlement of some proven refugees from Nauru and Manus Island in Australia. The day before UNHCR issued its statement, Barrie Cassidy had asked Shorten on ABC Insiders: ‘Is your policy that they would never, ever return to Australia?’ Shorten answered unequivocally, ‘That is part of it, yes, just to go to the short answer.’

The policy was first enunciated by Kevin Rudd when he returned to the prime ministership prior to the 2013 election. He joined Tony Abbott in a race to the bottom, pledging that any unvisaed asylum seeker coming by boat to Australia would be transported to a Pacific island and that they would never be able to come to Australia. Labor’s Sam Dastyari whose own grandparents sought and received asylum in Australia during John Howard’s prime ministership concedes that the refugee policies of the major political parties since 2013 have been ‘punitive’ and ‘inhumane’: ‘We went to (the 2013) election saying they would never come to Australia. That was Labor Party policy.’

In the lead up to the 2016 election, the bipartisan policy hit a road bump when the PNG Supreme Court struck down the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island. Such detention was not allowed under the PNG Constitution. Richard Marles, Labor’s Shadow Minister for Immigration, disclosed on ABC Lateline: ‘The agreement that we signed with the Government of PNG was for 12 months and that’s because we fully expected that the vast bulk of those people on Manus Island would be processed and resettled within that period of time.’

He limply defended the morality of the policy noting: ‘What we were not seeking to do was make an example of 2,000 people as a form of deterrence. We were absolutely not seeking to put people in a form of indefinite detention. And we totally acknowledge that the vast majority of those on Manus and Nauru who have been assessed have been found to be genuine refugees. They are deserving a safe, humane and dignified refuge.’

During the 2016 election campaign, both major political parties remained committed to stopping the boats and to offshore processing with the assurance that no proven refugee would be resettled in Australia. They had lost any interest whatever in providing ‘a safe, humane and dignified refuge’. A month after the 2016 election, UNHCR ‘renew[ed] its call for refugees and asylum seekers to be immediately moved off Nauru to humane conditions with adequate support and services’.

It’s now three years since any boat arrived, and some of the proven refugees on Manus Island and Nauru have now been there for four years. None of them has been resettled. Australian government officials, including our ambassador for people smuggling, Andrew Goledzinowski, have been working tirelessly to find permanent solutions for those proven refugees.

The most significant breakthrough came last August when the lame duck Obama Administration agreed in secret to take up to 1200 proven refugees from Nauru and Manus Island provided Australia was happy in turn to do its part in taking some refugees from Central America who were covered by a protection transfer arrangement between Costa Rica and the US.

Minister Dutton told Parliament in October 2016 that the caseload destined for Australia would include ‘refugees from Central America who are seeking international protection from kidnappings, human trafficking, family violence and targeted killings against their communities by known gangs’. Dutton kept emphasising that such arrangements were not possible without a close working relationship with UNHCR.

When Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull finally announced the US deal on 13 November 2016, UNHCR welcomed the announcement as ‘a much-needed, long-term solution for some refugees who have been held in Nauru and Papua New Guinea for over three years and who remain in a precarious situation’. UNHCR said that it would play its role endorsing referrals made from Australia to the US ‘on a one-off, good offices, humanitarian basis’ but that ‘UNHCR remains gravely concerned about the fate of all vulnerable individuals in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Appropriate solutions must be found for all of them.’

Even back then, it was known that there would be hundreds of proven refugees who would not make the cut for entry to the US. UNHCR was adamant that it would participate in the Australia-US deal only on the proviso that Australia remained committed to finding a solution for all proven refugees. With 65 million displaced people in the world, UNHCR has little interest in lending its good name to bilateral deals between nations which leave proven vulnerable refugees with no prospect whatever of reasonable resettlement. UNHCR was specific in its media release of 13 November 2016: ‘Australia must be part of the solution for refugees and asylum seekers who have sought its protection, and particularly those who have family ties to Australia or special needs.’

No matter what Mr Dutton says, there can be no doubt that UNHCR had committed itself since November 2016 to assisting Australia with US transfers from Nauru and Manus Island on the understanding that there would be appropriate arrangements made for proven vulnerable refugees who did not make the cut into the US or who would be more appropriately settled elsewhere. It was only very recently that UNHCR was informed by Australia that it refuses to accept even vulnerable proven refugees with close family ties in Australia and that ‘their only option is to remain where they are or to be transferred to Cambodia or the United States’.

No wonder UNHCR spat the dummy. They could see that the major political parties in Australia remain committed to an inhumane head-in-the-sand non-solution, when a crisis is imminent. The main service providers on Nauru and Manus Island are Broadspectrum and their subcontractors. All their contracts expire on 27 October 2017. Broadspectrum’s Spanish parent company has made clear that it cannot afford the corporate risk and damage of being connected with such an inhumane regime. The PNG government is adamant that the Manus Island processing centre has to close in October.

While there is room to debate the prudence of UNHCR’s public dummy spit, there is no room to doubt their moral condemnation of governments of both political persuasions in Australia when they say: ‘There is a fundamental contradiction in saving people at sea, only to mistreat and neglect them on land’.

I daresay Mr Grandi is shocked and appalled that Australia could contemplate going to a third election with both major political parties being committed to no permanent solution for vulnerable proven refugees with close family ties, other than Cambodia which is no solution at all except for the most cynical of legal fundamentalists who argue that Cambodia is a signatory to the Refugees Convention.

It’s three years since any boat made it to Australia. On the third anniversary, Mr Dutton told us, ‘Since the last successful people smuggling boat arrived in July 2014, Operation Sovereign Borders has stopped 18 boats carrying 361 potential illegal maritime arrivals. These boats have been turned-back where it was safe to do so or their occupants were returned via air.’ The boats would have remained stopped, and will remain stopped, even if we were to provide resettlement for the remaining caseload of proven refugees on Manus Island and Nauru.

The major political parties should hang their heads in shame. Preparing for the next election, neither Liberal nor Labor provide a moral solution to the complexities of Australian border protection. Sadly, I doubt that even the wake-up call from Filippo Grandi will stir us from our moral stupor.

But be certain of this. By October something will snap on Nauru or Manus Island, and our unctuous politicians will be out there blaming the proven vulnerable refugees, including those with close family ties in Australia, telling them that we needed them to perish slowly in the Pacific Ocean so as to send a message in the Indian Ocean.

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

This article first appeared in Eureka Street on 1 August 2017

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