The recent leak of the ‘Nauru Files’ underscores what has been clear for years now: our government’s treatment of people seeking refugee protection inflicts serious harm on children and adults who have done nothing to deserve it.
This regime, now collectively organised under the militarised ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, involves a number of strategies designed to deter people fleeing persecution from making the trip to Australia by boat.
Our government’s central deterrent policy involves the interception of boats carrying asylum seekers, and sending those on board to detention centres on Nauru, Manus Island and Christmas Island. Detained asylum seekers are told that they will never be resettled in Australia.
The inhumane conditions in these detention centres, highlighted in yet more detail within the Nauru Files, are a central part of the deterrence strategy, which has for years resulted in constant reports of suicide, self-harm, rioting, murder, sexual abuse of children and rape of women, assault against children and preventable death. A recent undercover investigation by Amnesty International graphically conveys the conditions in the Nauru camp.
Another deterrent measure has been to intercept “suspected illegal/irregular entry vessels” and tow them back to Indonesian waters, or hand to those aboard over to the navies of interested governments. This policy involves risk of death and refoulement to migrants and crew, and has:
frequently resulted in self-harm and threats of suicide by the migrants, and […] several turn-backs involved very tumultuous, dangerous, and sometimes violent circumstances” Andreas Schloenhardt and Colin Craig.
Each policy involves its own form of deterrence, in order to make the consequences of attempting to reach Australia worse than looking for protection elsewhere.
Is Australia In Breach Of International Law?
Each of these policies breach, or at least create situations that seriously risk breaching, international law in a number of ways.
Our policy of indefinite mandatory detention, for example, has led the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Torture, Juan Méndez, to report multiple violations of Australia’s obligations under the Convention against Torture. In response to the release of the Nauru Files, the UNHCR called for the immediate removal of refugees and asylum seekers from Nauru. Our boat turn-back measures risk returning people to face persecution in violation of the Refugee Convention and are ultimately:
a way for Australia to evade its international obligations and, in effect, render its signature under the Refugee Convention meaningless” Andreas Schloenhardt and Colin Craig.
Where Do Our Major Political Parties Stand?
Both major parties support these measures. The regime is currently shaped and administered by Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition government, but the Labor Party continues to hold that these offshore detention centres are the best way to manage asylum seekers arriving by boat, and that boat turn-backs are a legitimate option.
It is this agreement between the two major parties that has done the most to guarantee the continued misery that is at the core of Australia’s approach to asylum seekers. Because of this bipartisan support there is no serious, nationwide debate on the topic.
The last election season showed clear evidence of this paralysing effect on discussion – Labor did not want to raise the issue of refugee policy, as it would have been seen as too weak by one end of the political spectrum, and too cruel by the other.
Because there is no sustained attack on the current system from a sizeable group within our national parliament, debate at the highest level is stalled and has congealed around the childish notion that we face a choice between punishing asylum seekers or being inundated by a flood of foreigners.
There are some significant differences in refugee policy between the two major parties. At the last election, to the extent that the issue was mentioned at all, Labor wanted to sell itself to progressive voters as the more compassionate political party on this issue, and some of the details of its policy do reflect this. For example, Labor promised to establish an independent advocate for children in detention, to guarantee independent oversight of Australian-funded offshore detention centres, abolish Temporary Protection Visas and increase funding to the UNHCR.
But for all these minimal concessions to humanity, it remains the case that both Labor and Coalition policies maintain those central components of Operation Sovereign Borders, namely offshore detention and boat turn-backs, that most seriously risk continuing breaches of international law.
What Reform Is Desirable?
Our violent treatment of innocent people attempting to reach Australia continues despite criticism from the United Nations and continuing efforts to create change by refugee advocates and concerned citizens.
While finding a solution to a problem as multifaceted as refugee flows is always going to be complex, there are no moral complexities to Australia’s current approach. It cannot be defended by anyone who considers torture or serious mistreatment of innocent people unacceptable. The only way to endorse our current policy is to accept that keeping a certain subgroup of foreigners out of Australia is a good enough reason to justify institutional abuse of innocent people, including children.
The repeated, craven and fallacious assurance from our leaders that we have had to choose between one of two regrettable options, either punishing asylum seekers or letting them die at sea, has poisoned Australia’s national identity. If defenders of the current system really were concerned with the wellbeing of refugees, surely they would have the imagination to think of solutions beyond creating a terror more profound than the original persecution.
Australia is not under any obligation to give permanent residency to anyone who wants to live here. Australia is under an obligation to assess the claims of people who seek refugee protection, including those people who are desperate enough to make the trip to Australia by boat.
Given that there is no reason to out-source the detention of asylum seekers to countries like Papua New Guinea and Nauru, other than attempting to avoid responsibility for their protection, the most obviously desirable reform is to close the detention camps on Nauru, Manus Island and Christmas Island, to bring detainees to mainland Australia and to process their refugee protection claims. The detention regime must then be replaced with an intelligent alternative, through a sustained and evidence-based national dialogue. An example of such a dialogue can be found here.
While the camps remain open, reform of the secrecy surrounding the detention centres is crucial, particularly Part 6 of the Border Force Act which serves to punish whistleblowers who report on the conditions inside the detention centres. Meaningful compliance with Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention would also require a stop to the policy of boat turn-backs.
What Reform Is Achievable?
It is easy to be pessimistic, given that the consistent reporting of the brutality in our offshore detention centres has so far failed to convince the Australian public that the current approach is unacceptably vicious. After all, there is a reason that both major parties continue to implement these abusive practices: as it stands, Australians as a group have indicated that they are comfortable with the situation.
Will our current leaders be moved to reform as a result of the violence gleaned from the Nauru Files? There are steps that Malcolm Turnbull can take to adopt a more nuanced and somewhat less violent policy. Whether he is so inclined, and whether he could convince his colleagues to follow him in such a direction, are different questions. Either way, it would be unwise for citizens sickened by the situation to rely on Turnbull as conduit of reform given the government’s pathetic response to the leaks so far.
Will the Labor Party decide to change their position? As long as both major parties continue to endorse boat turn backs and offshore detention centres, the chance of significant reform is low. Ball and Webb see this collusion between the two parties as the final link holding the current system in place, and argue that it will soon be insufficient to stem the rising criticism. A reversal from Labor would obviously make a huge difference, not least in reinvigorating national debate in and outside Parliament. Again, it would be unwise to invest much optimism in this possibility. Labor’s long-term involvement in creating and maintaining the system makes a sudden reversal, driven from within, unlikely.
But despite the likely intransigence of the major parties, the pressure is mounting.
The detention centre on Manus Island may have to close after the PNG supreme court ruled the detention of refugees and asylum seekers unconstitutional. Those advocating for reform, in previous years stuck on the margins of political power, are making increasingly resonant arguments as the scale of the abuse becomes harder and harder to deny.
Refugee rights groups and religious groups have staged sit-ins outside onshore detention centres and inside politicians’ offices. Members of the public are becoming increasingly aware of those companies involved in the detention centre business – Transfield, which was paid billions by the Australian government to run the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres, felt enough pressure to change its name to ‘Broadspectrum’.
Ferrovial, the multinational that recently took control of Broadspectrum, has announced it does not intend to run the detention centres once it can extricate itself from the situation. In addition, protesters have been targeting Wilson Security’s carparks because of their involvement in Australia’s offshore detention centres.
Another encouraging point, made by RMIT’s Dr. Binoy Kampmark, is that the Australian government has not been able to prevent information from inside the detention centres from leaking out.
And through it all, the Greens continue to advocate for a humanitarian approach to asylum seekers in the House of Representatives and in the Senate.
As many commentators are now stressing, the current system is not sustainable, and it will eventually collapse under the weight of its own inhumanity when certain conditions are met. Whether that happens sooner or later is something that the Australian public can determine.
Ultimately, responsibility for the situation lies with us and, as recently emphasised by Australian Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs:
Vocal demand for reform from a concerned citizenry is the most likely means of change.
To put it in language that a Federal Minister might understand: we have to make it more politically painful for our government to continue the abuse than to close the camps and consider the alternatives.
- Nauru Files – How you can help people held in detention by Australia.
- Sign the #BringThemHere petition.
- Refugee Council of Australia myth-busters for more information about asylum seekers.
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