FRANK BRENNAN, TIM COSTELLO, ROBERT MANNE and JOHN MENADUE. We can stop the boats and also act decently, fairly and transparently

Feb 15, 2017

The only way forward in dealing with Manus Island and Nauru is for bipartisan commitment to keep the boats stopped while settling refugees in Australia.

If this call to action were to have any chance of success, Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten would need to agree on the necessary preconditions for keeping the boats stopped, and those of us agitating for the resettlement of proven refugees in Australia would need to accept those preconditions.

Having now endured two federal elections in which both the Labor party and the Liberal/National Coalition are committed to stopping the boats, concerned citizens need to accept that the boats will remain stopped.

We should be aiming for both bipartisan commitment and support in the community sector for those diplomatic, intelligence and military initiatives in Indonesia and on the high seas aimed at keeping the boats stopped. Such commitment and support would be possible only if there were a new Australian consensus as to how to stop the boats decently and fairly.

Our politicians need to be transparent with us, telling us how the Australians and Indonesians with Australian assistance can stop boats. Refugee advocates need to accept that most, if not all, asylum seekers on boats coming from Indonesia are not refugees fleeing persecution in Indonesia. They are desperate people seeking a better life than is on offer in any transit country through which they have passed.

In August, we wrote: “Our government has a mandate to stop the boats, but they have no mandate to treat people indecently without end simply because they came by boat.”

For as long as refugee advocates remain opposed to, or silent about, the preconditions for stopping the boats, the major parties will continue to fudge the solutions for the residual caseloads onshore and offshore, in part because they think any loosening of the arrangements will lead to renewed community pressure not to stop the boats and in part because they argue that if the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island are settled in Australia the people smuggling trade will re-commence.

This is demonstrably false. Since the announcement of the US deal, despite the government’s fears about the possible response of the people smugglers and the creation of a naval “ring of steel” to safeguard our borders, not one boat has set out from Indonesia to Australia.

The major political parties are committed to stopping the boats. But their commitment needs to be tempered by their obligation to act decently, fairly and transparently.

While keeping boats stopped, our politicians would need to remain committed to prompt on-board assessment of any asylum seekers making credible claims of persecution in Indonesia. In addition, boats should only be turned back if that can be done safely, transparently, and legally.

Back in 2012, Sir Angus Houston, who had been head of armed forces, and Michael L’Estrange, who had been head of foreign affairs for the Howard government, were not convinced that it could be done safely and legally. The community is entitled to evidence. We need to know what has changed since 2012. We’ve often heard from government military advisers like Jim Molan that the boats can be stopped. We need to hear from those like Houston and L’Estrange that they can be stopped safely and legally.

Any asylum seeker intercepted at sea must be assessed immediately to determine that they are not fleeing in fear of persecution in Indonesia. If they are, they must be received by Australia for processing. If they are not, then they should be returned safely to Indonesia.

Australia must do what is necessary to assist Indonesia and the UNHCR to ensure that the necessary protection is provided in Indonesia while refugee claims are processed. This must be done in such a way as not to set up a magnet effect for asylum seekers travelling extra distance to reach Indonesia. With increased military surveillance, intelligence reporting and better diplomatic work, we should be able to keep the boats stopped, thereby reducing the residual caseload of asylum claims in Java.

Given that the boats have stopped and will stay stopped, there is no need for continued warehousing on Nauru and Manus Island, nor for ongoing punitive measures for the 30,000 asylum seekers living in the Australian community, still awaiting processing.

Those proven refugees on Nauru and Manus Island who cannot be resettled in the USA in the near future, or any other appropriate country, should be resettled in Australia, and the 30,000 in limbo in Australia should be processed and granted permanent residence if proved to be refugees. But this will be possible only if groups like the Refugee Council and the coalition of community groups can reach agreement with Messrs Turnbull and Shorten that the time for political point scoring and purist disengagement has past.

The Refugee Council and coalition of community groups says, “This is a crisis.” This crisis can be solved only by the advocates accepting political realities and the politicians agreeing to a bottom line of safety, transparency and legality in the securing of our borders. We Australians have a clear moral obligation to the refugees on Manus Island and Nauru. Discharging that obligation, we also need to assert that we are not prepared to humiliate ourselves at the capricious hands of the present US administration.

This statement was first published by The Guardian on 13 February 2017.

Frank Brennan SJ, is the chief executive of Catholic Social Services Australia; Tim Costello is chief advocate for World Vision Australia; Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University; John Menadue is a former secretary of the department of immigration. 

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