FRANK BRENNAN. Time to defuse Nauru and Manus Island time bombs

Aug 15, 2016

On the weekend, I joined Robert Manne, Tim Costello and John Menadue in calling for an end to the limbo imposed on proven refugees on Nauru and Manus Island. I think this can be done while keeping the boats stopped. I think it ought be done.

Appearing on the ABC 7.30 program last Thursday afterThe Guardian‘s release of 2000 incident reports from Nauru, Peter Dutton, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, told presenter Leigh Sales, ‘I would like to get people off Nauru tomorrow but I have got to do it in such a way that we don’t restart boats.’

He went on to say, ‘We have had discussions with a number of other countries, but what we’re not going to do is enter into an arrangement that sends a green light to people smugglers.’ Dutton appreciates that Nauru and Manus Island are ticking time bombs.

During the election campaign, Malcolm Turnbull said that we could not be misty eyed about the situation on these islands, a situation of Australia’s making and a situation funded recurrently with the Australian cheque book. Now that the election is over, neither our politicians nor their strategic advisers can afford wilfully to close their eyes to the situation.

The majority of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island have now been proved to be refugees. They are not going to accept cheques to go back home and face renewed persecution. That’s why they fled in the first place. Most of these people have had their lives on hold, in appalling circumstances, for over three years. It’s time to act. Ongoing inaction will send a green light to desperate people to do desperate things.

While respecting those refugee advocates and their supporters who cannot countenance stopping the boats coming from Indonesia, I think it is time to see if we can design a way of getting the asylum seekers off Nauru and Manus Island ‘in such a way that we don’t restart boats’, ensuring that we continue to send a red light to people smugglers in Java.

The precedent is the Howard government’s successful plan to empty the Nauru and Manus Island processing centres while winding back its original Pacific Solution, ensuring the boats stayed stopped.

To set a new direction, we have first to put aside the undesirable and unworkable aspects of the present policy settings. Are not our military and intelligence services (in cooperation with Indonesian officials) sufficiently on the job that they can stop people smugglers in their tracks, stopping boats from being filled, stopping boats from setting out and turning back any that set out, regardless of whether proven refugees on Nauru and Manus Island are resettled elsewhere (even ultimately in Australia)?

“Nauru and Manus Island no longer perform any credible, morally coherent, or useful task in securing Australia’s borders. Even talk of sending signals is misplaced.”

The suggestion that those camps need to remain filled in order to send a message to people smugglers so that the boats will stay stopped is not only morally unacceptable; it is strategically questionable. Those proven to be refugees should be resettled as quickly as practicable, and that includes taking up New Zealand’s offer of 150 places a year — just as John Howard did when he accepted New Zealand’s offer to take 131 from the Tampa.

In 2012, Angus Houston proposed a resurrected Pacific solution to the Gillard government for two purposes only. He saw it as a temporary circuit breaker until the boats could be stopped and turned back lawfully and safely. His expert panel did not propose it as a permanent precondition for being able to stop boats and turn them back. Secondly, he saw the maintenance of the offshore processing centres once the boats had stopped as a necessary part of the jigsaw in designing a regional solution for the protection, processing and resettlement of refugees in South East Asia. Given that there has been no continuing flow of irregular maritime arrivals (IMAs), Houston saw no warrant for keeping proven refugees on Nauru or Manus Island for years on end, without any end in prospect. The Houston Panel stated:

The Panel’s view is that, in the short term, the establishment of processing facilities in Nauru as soon as practical is a necessary circuit breaker to the current surge in irregular migration to Australia. It is also an important measure to diminish the prospect of further loss of life at sea. Over time, further development of such facilities in Nauru would need to take account of the ongoing flow of IMAs to Australia and progress towards the goal of an integrated regional framework for the processing of asylum claims.

Given that there has been no ‘ongoing flow of IMAs to Australia’, the only case for maintaining processing facilities on Nauru and Manus Island, in line with the Houston recommendations, would be as part of ‘an integrated regional framework for the processing of asylum claims’. To date, the Abbott and Turnbull governments have done NOTHING to establish that framework. Nauru and Manus Island no longer perform any credible, morally coherent, or useful task in securing Australia’s borders. Even talk of sending signals is misplaced. The main signal is being sent to Australian voters, not to asylum seekers waiting in Java whose attempts to commission people smugglers have been thwarted by Indonesian officials and Australian intelligence, and whose boats would be turned back in any event.

Last Thursday evening Dutton said ‘we have had discussions with a number of other countries’ but then went on to say, ‘I think the situation is that people have paid people smugglers for a migration outcome. They want to come to Australia, they don’t want to go to New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Malaysia, anywhere else.’ It’s time for Turnbull, Shorten and Di Natale to agree on a timetable. If the government is unable to resettle the proven refugees elsewhere in countries like New Zealand and Canada by the end of the year, the refugees should be resettled in Australia. If there are still asylum seekers awaiting determination of their claims by the end of the year, they should be brought to Christmas Island for processing. To keep them any longer on Nauru and Manus Island is to tempt fate adverse to their interests, adverse to the national interest of PNG and Nauru, and adverse to Australia’s international standing and sense of ourselves.

Dutton’s status quo can’t work much longer, and he must know that. His advisers know that in this realm of human activity, the red and green lights require prior calculation of what people will do to save their own lives and to get on with their lives. It’s much more complex than the census, and it’s much more complicated than being re-elected. The stakes are very high, and not just for those proven refugees we continue to punish so publicly and so unapologetically pretending that we are treating them decently. Turnbull and Dutton have a mandate to stop the boats. They have no mandate to make these people suffer more, in our name, for no appreciable benefit to anybody.

To keep them on hold any longer in such circumstances will be to send a green light to desperate, trapped people doing desperate things beyond the control of the governments and service providers paid with Australian tax dollars to keep them out of sight and out of mind. It’s time for our politicians to agree to defuse the ticking time bombs of Nauru and Manus Island.


Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at Australian Catholic University and adjunct professor at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture. This article was first published in Eureka Street on 15 August 2016.


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