IAN MACPHEE. I plead with the Labor Party to adopt a humane policy regarding asylum.A repost

Oct 31, 2018

I plead with the Labor Party to adopt a humane policy regarding asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island. I have no doubt that the majority of Australians feel humiliated by the disgusting treatment that recent governments have given to asylum seekers and especially to those on neighbouring islands. Parts of Queensland might support Hanson’s racism but most Australians will not. Labor must realise that and adopt our belief in a fair go.

For many years I have condemned Morrison, Abbott and Turnbull for parading their Christianity while betraying its fundamental principles. Others have made similar comments in recent years, most notably the distinguished barrister Julian Burnside in his moving documentary Border Politics. On the screen it begins with “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.”

That should resonate with all caring people. Yet Morrison’s desk in his Prime Minister’s office has a model of a ship which has a proud statement on one side: “I stopped these.”

In the Fraser and Hawke governments there was a bipartisan policy regarding the welcoming and settlement of refugees. Most were from Vietnam and they have integrated into our community faster than any earlier refugees had. Seventy five percent of the first generation married non Vietnamese. This is due to the settlement programs that  ceased from Howard onwards.

Unfortunately, this downward slide began with the Keating government when it introduced mandatory detention in 1992, making us the first country in the world to do so. Few other democratic countries have done so since. Yet, had our governments placed in our laws the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that we signed, we could have challenged mandatory detention in our courts. The basic premise of International Human Rights Law is that all human beings should be treated with dignity and fairness. We have not adopted that in our law.

Successive governments have further breached international law. Hence, the United Nations Human Rights Commission(UNHCR) has condemned our policy and practices. Our serious breaches of International Conventions we have signed are revealed in a book published by UNSW in 2014 entitled ‘Refugees: Why seeking asylum is legal and Australia’s policies are not’. It was written by Professor Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong who are at the Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales.

The authors outline the need to restore a functional refugee status determination process with judicial review. Australia used to have one of the best of such systems but successive governments have sought to restrict access to courts.

Statistics quoted in the book place the issue in an important context. In 2012 Australia received 17,202 asylum seekers. Yet this represented only 1.47 percent of the world’s asylum seekers. By 2014 we had reduced it to 13,750. And the policy of detention onshore and offshore had cost Australians $3.3 billion by 2014. Surely we could work once again with the UNHCR and our neighbours to process asylum seekers and place refugees in a welcoming nation and we should be one of those.

We have an annual intake of about 190,000 migrants. Refugees have made wonderful contributions to our culture and economy and should be part of that intake. But our practices now breach International Law that we have committed ourselves to and, thereby, place individuals at risk.

Once most Australians have come to know migrants and refugees they have liked them and helped them integrate. But we never get to know those in detention.

The book I praise begins its conclusion thus: “It is often said that a quintessential Australian value is ‘a fair go for all’. This sentiment encompasses ideas like equal opportunity, mutual respect, tolerance and human dignity, the importance of which most Australians would embrace. These ideas lie at the heart of International Human Rights and Refugee Law.”

This is a human rights issue not a matter of protection of our borders. When men suffering persecution fled their country on rickety boats and were processed in Australia and granted refugee status they were allowed to have family reunion with their wives and children who then arrived safely in Australia. Yet Howard denied the right to family reunion after refugee status was granted to those men. Hence the families also fled on unsafe boats and many drowned. Yet peaceful reunion was vital for the trauma all had suffered.

When examined, asylum seekers are found overwhelmingly to be refugees. And detention on Manus and Nauru has greatly magnified their trauma, causing some to suicide, some to self-harm and many to refuse to eat. How can leaders of religious faith be proud of that?

In recent weeks an increasing number of charities helping asylum seekers have expressed outrage at the government’s policy. The International Red Cross has done so forcefully. And the Kaldor Centre has weekly reports that reveal the atrocious suffering of people fleeing tyranny and being rejected by countries that could and should accept and assimilate them.

Some Vietnamese are still fleeing when the Communist government has taken their property or persecuted them for their religious beliefs.

Other individuals have pleaded for help from Australians whom they have known. For example, an interpreter for Australian soldiers in Afghanistan is at risk and so an Australian soldier begged Dutton to grant him a visa. The minister for Home Affairs rejected the request!

It seems that the Australian government agreed to Nauru’s blocking of transfers off island for medical treatment and did not dispute the banishment of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) because Nauru’s autocratic leader said that there is no need to treat more refugees. Morrison said it was not his business. It was a matter for Nauru! And he wished to preserve the working relationship between the two nations! Do unto others…!

In September the Federal Court again ordered medical evacuation of dangerously ill asylum seekers and refugees from Nauru and ordered the Minister of Home Affairs to give five business days notice of any plan to return the family to Nauru. The family has a long record of ill health and attempted suicides so the Minister was ordered to pay all costs.

No psychiatric facility is in Nauru and children and some adults are skeletons after refusing to eat. Their detention centre is surrounded by barbed wire as Howard had done when he placed such desperate people in Australian deserts.

Among over 700 asylum seekers on Nauru are over 90 children with what doctors term “resignation syndrome”, a rare and potentially fatal condition that is a reaction to extreme trauma. That was reported in The Guardian on 29September 2018.

To its credit SBS covers aspects of the refugee crisis and the ABC does a little. But it cannot compete with road accidents on commercial television! So not enough Australians know of the inhumanity of their government. That is why I wish the Labor opposition would join the Greens in promising to return to a humane policy.

As Mungo MacCallum wrote in Pearls and Irritations on 8 October, numerous health professionals have explained the parlous effects of long term detention. Palliative care provided by MSF is needed but so is long term therapy available in Australia. When those who receive that recover they are then sent back to Nauru! Is that a fair go?

Geoffrey Watson, a barrister who has done over a year of pro bono work to try to get children off Nauru persuaded the Federal Court to order Minister Dutton to evacuate a child from Nauru. But the Nauru government rejected the request and the Minister remained silent. Nauru gets $3,000 a month for every refugee there! No wonder Nauru does not want those in detention to leave!

Morrison is wrong to argue that to resettle in Australia those suffering trauma would encourage others to pay people smugglers to bring them to Australia. As Robert Manne said in The Guardian on 23 September, we have the largest surveillance response fleet in our history in the Indian Ocean. Not one boat has set sail since the deal was struck with President Obama to send 1,250 to the US. Nor would one boat set out  if we accepted New Zealand’s offer to take 150.

Manne stressed that many children in detention on Nauru are suffering from a rare psychological condition, withdrawal from the world, barely talking, eating and drinking and defecating in their beds. And yet Canberra, commercial media and majority public opinion remains unmoved. Even when a twelve year old girl on Nauru doused herself with petrol and threatened to set herself alight!

Robert Manne then wrote that Tim Costello, Frank Brennan, John Menadue and he have argued for two years for the following solution to the current problem:
1: allowing those on Nauru who need medical treatment to come to Australia for that treatment and stay on suitable visas.
2: accept the New Zealand offer of 150 settlement places.
3: gradually bring all refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru to Australia.
4: maintain the policy of naval interception and turn backs. It was enlarged when the Obama deal was done and could be enlarged when this policy is implemented.

All four of these wonderful men are confident that people smugglers will not return. Boats will be intercepted and returned to point of embarkation. As Robert Manne wrote: “This is the least inhumane option until we can form a regional or even wider solution with the UNHCR.” I agree completely.

Another tragedy is that UNHCR funding is being reduced. It comes mostly from 12 donor countries. Last April it received $3.3 billion but needs $8.2 billion annually to meet the world refugee crisis. At present the US donates 40 percent of the UNHCR budget but Trump has threatened a reduction. Even a small reduction would cut expenditure greatly. Obama raised the annual refugee intake to 110,000 but Trump reduced it to 45,000 and might reduce it to 25,000. To compound this, the European Union is unlikely to assist as most of its states vote for parties that will reject refugees, especially from the Middle East.

Like Australia, several European governments are violating international refugee laws they signed. They are desperate to seal European borders. Hence, the EU is funding Libyan coast guards to intercept and return any asylum seekers who try to leave Libya by boat. They are then confined to detention centres and are at risk of torture, forced labour, extortion and murder at the hand of smugglers, bandits or Libyan authorities.

The fact that many in Europe are now adopting our recent inhumane policy does not justify our retention of it. Nor does the cost to such policies. As Jane McAdam has revealed, it costs $400,000 a year to hold asylum seekers in offshore detention, $239,000 to hold them in Australia in mandatory detention, under $100,000 to have them live in community detention and only $40,000 to live in the community on a bridging visa while their claims are processed. That includes the cost of financial support for basic living expenses and essential health care. $400,000 to $40,000 a year for one person!

As long ago as July 1979 Andrew Peacock as Foreign Minister in the Fraser Government set out foreign policy implications if we turned boats around. He said “it would court international pariah status and Australia would lose its international credibility on human rights and its claim to have moved on from the era of racial discrimination entry policy.”

In late 1981, after a lengthy and most cordial discussion with the Malaysian Foreign Minister in Melbourne, I predicted that Asian migration would not be an issue in ten years time. I never contemplated that we would return to the disgraceful mess we are now  in.

Both island detention centres have been condemned by the UNHCR, human rights groups and other countries over sexual and physical abuse of those detained. Yet 75 percent of the people confined have been formally recognised as refugees.

As the greatly respected former Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs, observed in The Monthly in January, The Papua New Guinea Supreme Court declared that the Manus Island Detention Centre is unconstitutional because it involved detaining people without trial. Professor Triggs added: “So we have a new country with a new constitution that is more modern our own.”

When welcomed, refugees settle well and integrate. But while unable to work while being processed is debilitating for people fleeing tyranny. Also, education for children and enabling adults to gain skills is vital for settlement. That was the policy of the Fraser, Hawke and Keating governments. It is a national shame that we have so mistreated those who have come to our shores.

As George Browning reminded us in Pearls and Irritations on 4 September, in his maiden speech in 2008, Morrison said: “I derive the values of loving kindness, justice and righteousness to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others; to fight for a fair go for everyone to fulfil their human potential and to remove whatever unjust obstacles stand in their way”

Is unbearable suffering in offshore detention centres consistent with our Prime Minister’s faith?

Another scholar at the Kaldor Centre is Dr Claire Higgins who recently published an excellent book entitled “Asylum by Boat”.She records a statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants in November 2016 after he had visited Australia and reported to the UN that Australia’s current asylum seekers policy “blemishes its otherwise good human rights record.”

Compellingly, Dr Higgins observed that “a political leader’s lack of action or words on a subject as sensitive as the detention of children, women and men, can shape the sort of country Australia becomes.”

I agree with her entirely. That is why I challenge Labor to return us to the bipartisan policy that ended with the Howard government. If Labor does that it will gain the public support of so many people with a knowledge of the subject and win the hearts of so many voters.

In 2007 when Howard lost his own seat as well as government, Russell Broadbent who crossed the floor seven times against Howard’s opposition to refugees retained the seat of MacMillan which had a always gone to the party which won government. It had always been won on preferences but Broadbent won it on an absolute majority for it represented the views of his rural electorate. Labor must learn from that. The coalition has refused to do so.

IAN MACPHEE was  Immigration Minister in the Fraser Government.


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