John Menadue. Manus and Nauru and Australia’s responsibility in regional processing.

Feb 21, 2014

An asylum seeker who comes to our shores must be protected. We cannot offload that responsibility onto another country. We continue to carry a responsibility for that asylum seeker whatever happens in Manus, Nauru or even Malaysia.

I have not always held the view that those who come to Australia could be transferred and processed in another country. I changed my mind on that partly because of the rapid increase in boat arrivals after the Agreement with Malaysia fell over in2011. The large number of boat arrivals was reducing public support for a generous and humane refugee program. I came to the view that what was important is that asylum seekers are treated with humanity and that the process is fair and just. The issue of where that processing occurred was a secondary issue.

I also supported the proposed Malaysian Agreement for two other reasons. I saw it as part of an important building block in regional cooperation. Secondly, the UNHCR was actively supporting the proposed arrangement with Malaysia. The UNHCR does not support the transfers to Manus (PNG) and Nauru and the processing in those countries.

Unfortunately the agreement with Malaysia was made impossible by the combined support of the Greens and the Coalition in the Senate to block amendments to the Migration Act. The action of the Coalition in the Senate was supported by refugee advocates across Australia. It was quite extraordinary to hear Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison along with refugee advocates criticising human rights abuses in Malaysia. No country is perfect, including Australia in mandatory detention, but the position of asylum seekers in Malaysia would have been a long way ahead of what is now unfolding in Manus and Nauru.

The collapse of the Malaysian arrangement was the turning point. We have been on a slippery slide ever since. Boat arrivals quadrupled as a result of the High Court decision and the collapse of the Malaysian arrangement. Policies by the Labor Government and the Coalition since then have been punitive and cruel. The result has been Manus and Nauru.

In my blog of January 14, I pointed out that the UNHCR has a long history of support for the transfer of asylum seekers in appropriate circumstances. Late last year the UNHCR issued a ‘Guidance Note on Bilateral and Multilateral Transfer Arrangements of Asylum Seekers’. It set out clear conditions, including important issues of non-refoulment and protection of the rights and the safety of asylum seekers in the country to which they were to be transferred.

In the Melbourne Age on 13 December last year, Arja Keski-Nummi and I outlined a system of ‘effective protection’ that should govern any transfers of asylum seekers in our region. We set down several important criteria.

  • All countries should commit to the principle of non-refoulment.
  • Provide asylum seekers with a legal status and access to work and education.
  • Work to help not only displaced people but also host communities.
  • Increase our refugee intake from our region.
  • Work with partners in the region in association with UNHCR to create an atmosphere of safety and trust.
  • Amend the Migration Act to assert the principle of ‘effective protection’ and bind governments to that principle in any transfers of asylum seekers.

Clearly few of the conditions have been met in the arrangements with PNG and Nauru. Importantly, the UNHCR does not support our arrangements with either country.

Just as importantly, the Australian Government is failing to accept its responsibilities to asylum seekers that we have transferred to PNG and Nauru. We cannot offshore our responsibilities for ensuring effective protection and safety for asylum seekers. After demonizing asylum seekers for so long I don’t think the Coalition Government cares about the human rights of asylum seekers. Their rights, even their lives are just unfortunate and embarrassing collateral damage

The horror on Manus is only one part of the havoc that Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison have wrought. They have badly damaged our relations with Indonesia. Their actions have resulted in the collapse of the rule of law in Nauru. And they are responsible for the release of details of 10,000 asylum seekers that will now be eagerly accessed by security agencies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. What an opportunity it will be for those security agencies to now hunt down the families of asylum seekers who have fled to Australia from oppressive regimes in those countries.

How ironic it now is that China is rebuking us for our abuse of the human rights of asylum seekers.

One thing the ALP in Parliament should do immediately  is move to incorporate the principle of “effective protection ” in the Migration Act. It would clearly express the responsibility we have for persons transferred to another jurisdiction. We could then not shirk our responsibility by  passing the buck to others.

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