FRANK BRENNAN. The invidious choice for refugee advocates

May 19, 2017

Robert Manne’s latest piece on the future policy options for refugees on Nauru and Manus Island is now available here. The moral-political question is about the choice confronting those of us advocating a change of policy by the major political parties.

Those like Robert Manne, John Menadue, Tim Costello and myself have been arguing that there are four achievable goals, most probably via the ALP shortly after its election were it to win the next election. But even with the Coalition there could be some movement by October when PNG wants ‘out’ and when Broadspectrum and Wilson Security finish their contracts. Broadspectrum (which used by Transfield) now has new corporate masters, the Spanish company Ferrovial. Ferrovial does not want a bar of any contracts profiting by the provision of services to offshore immigration detention centres in the Pacific. Any new service providers will be very inexperienced and expensive, providing government with future headaches. It’s only a matter of time before something goes badly wrong on Nauru or Manus Island.

We think the four achievable goals are: closing the Nauru and Manus Island facilities, resettling all proven refugees in the USA or Australia; providing permanent residence to those of the 30,000 caseload in Australia who are proven to be refugees; ensuring that all boat turnbacks to Indonesia are safe, legal and transparent; and investing more in diplomacy aimed at a building a co-operative regional approach to people flows.

We think the only prospect of convincing the Coalition or the ALP to adopt these goals would be with acceptance that the boats from Indonesia will remain stopped, and that government is entitled to negotiate arrangements with the Indonesian authorities to ensure the boats remain stopped. Should an asylum seeker be seeking entry to Australia having come directly from Indonesia where their life or freedom was threatened, no return to Indonesia would be warranted unless there had first been an assessment of their refugee status and of their potential situation on return.

Other refugee advocates think we have been either unprincipled or incorrect in our political assessments. They maintain the goal of having a future Australian government accept that asylum seekers transiting Indonesia should be permitted entry to Australia with the assurance of permanent resettlement should they then be proved to be refugees. Those advocates may be right. But then again, they might be wrong. In any case, their approach places no added pressure on the major political parties. Their approach would yield fruit only if the Greens were in government, also enjoying control of the Senate. While government in Australia is constituted by Labor or the Coalition, we think proven refugees (including children) will continue to languish on Nauru and Manus Island, and the 30,000 residual caseload in Australia will continue to have their lives placed on hold unless one of the major parties can be convinced to break the bipartisan commitment both to stopping boats AND to meting out punitive treatment on those who reached Australia in the past. Thus the need for respectful informed discussion amongst refugee advocates. We need to break the logjam, rather than breaking these people on a point of principle. We need to yield on the bipartisan commitment to stopping the boats while insisting that any major political party deserving our votes would be committed to ending the unnecessary punitive treatment of those who succeeded in running the gauntlet, assured that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to run that gauntlet in future.

Fr Frank Brennan SJ is CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia. These are his personal views, shared with Robert Manne, John Menadue and Tim Costello

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