ACT Government provides much needed leadership on refugees

Aug 31, 2017

Last Thursday, the ACT Government passed a strongly worded motion calling on the Federal Government to end its “damaging, cruel and inhumane policy” on refugees. It requested that the Federal Government immediately remove all refugees and asylum seekers from Manus Island and Nauru and resettle them in Australia.

The motion was put to the ACT Legislative Assembly by Greens MLA and Minister for Justice, Shane Rattenbury. It was unanimously supported by Labor and Green MLAs in the chamber. Notably, Liberal MLAs did not oppose the motion.

Introducing the motion to the Assembly, Shane Rattenbury said: “It is clearly illegal for refugees to be coerced into returning to their home country, but this appears to be the aim of the Manus Island policy, and offshore processing more generally. The fact that most people on Manus Island and Nauru have chosen to remain there in such horrendous conditions, rather than returning to their home country, shows how unimaginably bad the situations in their home country must be… How can we, in all conscience, believe that this is the way to treat fellow human beings? They have committed no crime. They are not illegal. They are simply fleeing persecution – and we have a responsibility to respond humanely. We have a responsibility to no longer sit back and ignore what is going on and being done, apparently in our name.” Minister Rattenbury’s speech was met with extended applause from the packed public gallery.

Deputy Chief Minister Yvette Berry (Labor) also spoke to the motion. She said: “I’ve spoken often about my disagreement with the Federal Government’s offshore detention policies. They have removed themselves from important ethical and legal judgements on this issue by saying that the end justifies the means, that the high human cost of indefinite detention is warranted in order to send a message of deterrence. And exactly what is it that they are deterring? Some desperate families and individuals from seeking to access asylum, their international legal and human right. ACT Labor does not support this policy. Our view is that the concerns outlined by the UNHCR earlier this month, combined with the record of events built up over years, now warrant the end to this policy. We support a return to a political consensus which existed up until two decades ago that the safe settlement of refugees in Australia is something that we’re not only obliged to offer, but also something that we greatly benefit from.”

Liberal leader Alistair Coe MLA did not respond to the content of the motion in his speech. However, in his opening remarks he said: “We, on this side, of course, sympathise with the plight of those in detention, wherever they are. We also acknowledge that successive governments have had a policy in place which has led to where we are today, but of course these are federal governments; these are federal Liberal and federal Labor governments.”

After the motion was passed, the public gallery again erupted into applause.

The ACT is Australia’s only whole jurisdiction to have declared itself a Refugee Welcome Zone and the ACT Government confirmed its willingness to welcome refugees and asylum seekers from Manus and Nauru to Canberra as part of a national program of resettlement.

The 35 minute debate can be viewed here. The transcript of the debate can be found in the ACT Legislative Assembly Hansard for 24 August.

Full text of the motion follows:

For Thursday 24th August 2017 – Shane Rattenbury MLA to move – That this Assembly:

1)      Acknowledges the ACT Government’s ongoing commitment to upholding the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers, by reaffirming that:

(a) The ACT is the only Australian state or territory to have declared itself a Refugee Welcome Zone, and is one of 148 Refugee Welcome Zones across Australia – including councils and shires from every state. As a Refugee Welcome Zone we welcome refugees in our community, act to uphold their human rights, demonstrate compassion for refugees, and work to enhance our cultural and religious diversity; and

(b) The ACT is proud to be part of the Safe Haven Enterprise Visa Scheme. This underlines the commitment of both the ACT Government and the broader community to welcoming and supporting refugees and asylum seekers.

2)      Notes that:

(a) The Manus Island detention facility and the Nauru Regional Processing Centre have been unequivocally shown, via multiple reports from reputable sources, including the United Nations, to be extremely unsafe and inappropriate places, yet over 2000 refugees – including 169 children – have been imprisoned for four years in these inhumane and degrading conditions;

(b) Refugees in these processing centres have been subjected to violent attacks, sexual violence, inadequate medical care, and harassment of mothers, fathers and children as young as six;

(c) The United Nations has repeatedly criticised Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers including by saying:The consensus among medical experts is that conditions of detention and offshore processing do immense damage to physical and mental health” and “[T]he Rapporteur concludes that there is substance in the allegations… that the Government of Australia, by failing to provide adequate detention conditions; end the practice of detention of children; and put a stop to the escalating violence and tension at the Regional Processing Centre, has violated the right of the asylum seekers, including children, to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment…”;

(d) On 8 August 2017, the UNHCR said it “is gravely concerned by deteriorating conditions at the Manus Island ‘Regional Processing Centre’, as authorities seek to relocate people to Lorengau or elsewhere in Papua New Guinea. The announcement of the closure of the Centre, in the absence of appropriate alternatives, is causing acute distress among refugees and asylum-seekers”; and

(e) It is past time for this damaging, cruel and inhumane policy to end.

3)      Writes to the Federal Government, requesting that it:

(a) Immediately removes all refugees and asylum seekers from Manus Island and Nauru; and

(b) Brings all refugees and asylum seekers to Australia to be resettled in Australia’s 148 Refugee Welcome Zones where they can build new lives within this network of compassionate and caring communities committed to upholding their rights.

4)      Declares that:

(a) The ACT Government is willing and ready to settle refugees and asylum seekers from Manus and Nauru in Canberra as part of a national program of resettlement.

Michelle Fahy is a Canberra-based writer, editor, and advocate for human rights.

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