The Manus Island agreement is a failure; Turnbull and Shorten need to accept that: Robert Manne, Tim Costello, Frank Brennan and John Menadue.

Nov 3, 2017

There is now a humanitarian disaster on Australia’s doorstep. And it’s our responsibility. The refugees on Manus Island must be resettled promptly. After four years, all options other than Australia have come to nothing or have been rejected by our government. There is now no option but to resettle them in Australia.  

There are 600 persons, most of them proven refugees, who are at risk on Manus Island. They were taken there under an agreement between the governments of Australia and Papua New Guinea. They have been there more than four years.

The original agreement provides: “Australia and Papua New Guinea take seriously their obligations for the welfare and safety of any persons transferred to Papua New Guinea under this arrangement.”

“Australia will provide support, through a service provider, to any refugees who are resettled in Papua New Guinea or in any other participating regional, including Pacific Island, state”; and “Australia will bear the full cost of implementing the arrangement in Papua New Guinea for the life of the arrangement. If this requires additional development of infrastructure or services, it is envisaged that there will be a broader benefit for communities in which transferees are initially placed.”

The agreement has failed. It’s never worked. It’s now completely unworkable. It is now unprincipled. It has not provided protection, security or safety for these 600 persons. It has not conferred broader benefits on the affected communities. It has placed the lives of refugees at risk, and it has disturbed affected communities.

 Under the formal memorandum of understanding between the two governments, the government of Papua New Guinea was to “conduct all activities in respect of this MOU in accordance with its constitution and all relevant domestic laws’. It’s 18 months since the PNG Supreme Court found that the arrangement between the two governments for the detention of the asylum seekers was unconstitutional. It’s 14 months since the service providers gave notice that they were leaving. Now they’ve left.

The agreement between the governments was to be reviewed every 12 months. The reviews have come to nothing. The two governments established a joint committee with responsibility for the oversight of all practical arrangements. The committee has failed to clarify responsibilities between the two governments.

The administration of this agreement has upset the local population of Manus Island. It has caused untold political problems for the PNG government. And it has undermined the rule of law in PNG. Our government has failed to act in a timely way. There is now no realistic prospect of peaceful resettlement of refugees in other parts of PNG. There is no way that permanent resettlement can be offered to these refugees in Nauru.

It is not an acceptable option to leave the refugees on Manus Island any longer, when there has not been an ordered transition to other secure accommodation or to new competent service providers. The Liberal/National Party government should accept that it has failed to make this agreement work, and the time is up.

The Labor opposition should accept that former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s 2013 agreement has failed to deliver, and the time has passed for it ever to deliver. The Turnbull government and the Shorten opposition should abandon the agreement now because none of its objectives can be achieved. If the Turnbull government refuses to bring the refugees to Australia, the Shorten opposition should commit to do so if elected to government. The Senate should demand that the government act now.

After four years, our government has exhausted all offshore possibilities. The refugees and failed asylum seekers should be brought to Australia immediately. Those who are not refugees can be held here in secure detention until they are returned home. Those refugees accepted for entry to the US can migrate when their vetting processes are complete. The other refugees can get on with their lives here in safety.

Meanwhile the boats will stay stopped just as they have for the past four years because of the diplomatic and military arrangements in place with Indonesia. Deliberate, ongoing, unresolved displacement of proven refugees in troubled circumstances can be no part of a civilised border protection policy.

Four years and three months is enough. Malcolm Turnbull needs to act now. If he doesn’t, Bill Shorten needs to commit to a workable and principled solution.

Even if it enjoys bipartisan support, an unworkable, unprincipled agreement is still just that. The cost to all parties is too high. Time has run out.

Frank Brennan is chief executive of Catholic Social Services Australia

Tim Costello is chief advocate of World Vision Australia

Robert Manne is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University

John Menadue is a former secretary of the Department of Immigration

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