In recent weeks I have been involved in an extended argument on the Monthly’s website over the fate of the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island whose lives all participants in the discussion agree are being slowly destroyed as a result of Australian policy over the past four years.
In brief, our case can be summarised like this. We have argued that it is not feasible that any Australian government formed in the next few years will return to the policy position adopted by the Rudd government in 2008: the abandonment of both offshore processing and the turn-back of asylum seekers to their point of departure after naval interception. The reason is clear. As a result of the Rudd policy between 2009 and 2013, 50,000 asylum seekers reached Christmas Island from Indonesia on 800 boats, while more than 1000 drowned. No Australian government in the foreseeable future will risk the recurrence of a situation like this.
We have argued, however, that if the turn-back policy is retained, the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island not accepted by the US under the Obama–Turnbull deal can be settled in Australia without the reappearance of significant numbers of asylum-seeker boats. Both historical experience and common sense show why. During the late Howard years, more than half the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island were settled here. Because the policy of turn-back was retained, virtually no asylum-seeker boats set out from Indonesia. Manifestly, there seems to be almost no one foolish enough to spend thousands of dollars on a journey that is guaranteed to end either in death by drowning or return to point of departure.
Professor Klaus Neumann responded to our argument on his blog. His post was republished on the Monthly’s website. In rejecting our proposal, he argued in some detail that we had shown ourselves indifferent to questions of justice and uninterested in international refugee law and the global refugee crisis.
In response, I asked Neumann a straightforward question: Having rejected our proposal but believing like us that the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island not settled in the United States should be brought to Australia, what alternative policy proposal could he suggest that might, on the one hand, save the lives of the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island and, on the other, have a realistic chance of being adopted by a Labor government if one were to be elected in the near future?
Last week, Neumann and four colleagues provided a refreshingly honest answer to my question. They argued that as there was no chance that the proven refugees on Nauru and Manus Island not accepted by the US would be settled in Australia by the next Labor government, there was simply no point in trying to fashion a “short-term” policy to save their lives. What refugee advocates should work on was a new refugee policy for the “medium term”, which they then proceeded to outline.
As readers might think I am distorting what they argued, let me quote their words. “[I]t is imperative to work for a medium term solution because a sustainable and just short-term solution is all but impossible.” Or again, “[t]here is no sound realistic policy option in the short term …” Or yet again, “there is no sustainable short-term solution that would address our concerns about legality and justice at the same time as being politically palatable …”
The implication of these words – denying the possibility of any short-term solution to the tragedy of the people of Nauru and Manus Island – go deep. Almost by definition, whether or not the lives of the people on Nauru and Manus Island not accepted by the US are to be saved is a short-term question. If they are left to rot, without hope, for even the next two or three or five years, the lives of almost all these people will be shattered.
There are two additional points to be made about the response of Neumann et al.
First, it seems to me extraordinarily dogmatic to suggest that the idea we have proposed – settlement of the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island in Australia coupled with the retention of turn-back – has no chance of being accepted by a future Labor government. After all, the decidedly refugee-unfriendly Howard government adopted a similar policy between 2004 and 2007. For such an idea to be accepted, however, the case for it will need to be made, time and time again. If refugee advocates do not support the idea, or even more if they oppose it, the chance of a new Labor government bringing the people on Nauru and Manus Island to Australia is very significantly reduced.
Which leads to my second point. Neumann et al have indeed made it clear that if the next Labor government were to adopt such a policy they would be opposed to it on both moral and legal grounds. As there is, they concede, no other policy proposal that has any chance of saving the lives of those presently on Manus Island and Nauru not settled in the US, Neumann et al have no strategy that might offer the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island any grounds for hope. Rather than Neumann et al accepting our compromise proposal, or suggesting something else that has any chance of being adopted by a future Labor government, the real-world logic of the position they have sketched out – which is supported strongly by a policy brief released on 2 May by the pre-eminent refugee think tank in Australia, the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales – is that hundreds of the people now on Nauru and Manus Island simply cannot be saved.
In my view, precisely because of their honesty, Neumann et al take us to the hollowness at the heart of the position that supporters of the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island have now reached.
The supporters are campaigning under the slogan “Bring Them Here”. Whatever their differences, what almost all the refugee supporters demand is both the closure of the offshore processing centres and the abandonment of the policy of turn-back. If they are honest, like Neumann et al, they must know that there is no possibility that any Australian government that is likely to be formed in the near future will risk a return to the situation of 2009–13 by both emptying the offshore processing centres and abandoning the policy of turn-back. The most to hope for from any Australian government in the foreseeable future is the settlement of all those presently on Nauru and Manus Island and the establishment of a safe, transparent and legal policy of turn-back.
In arguing therefore for something they know to be unachievable over the next few years, and in resisting the only realistic alternative short-term policy so far suggested – the only time span that in the context matters – refugee supporters in Australia have effectively, if unintentionally, abandoned to their fate those many hundreds of people presently marooned on Nauru and Manus Island who will be rejected over the next months for settlement in the US.
The compromise solution that Frank Brennan, Tim Costello, John Menadue and I have suggested is self-evidently uncomfortable for us as much as it is for other refugee supporters in Australia. But as it, or something like it, is the only politically realistic policy proposal with any prospect of success, my hope is that the people who genuinely care about the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island will eventually, on reflection, recognise that they have no alternative policy to suggest, and that, in the absence of any alternative proposals, they will find the courage and intellectual honesty to change their minds and to offer our proposal their support.
Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor of Politics and Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University