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Sending asylum seekers offshore harmful — and won’t stop the boats

The offshore processing of asylum seekers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea deliberately harms human beings and has no benefit other than political smoke and mirrors, argues Susan Metcalfe.

When the Houston panel recommended a return to offshore asylum seeker processing in Nauru and Papua New Guinea last year, the intention was that it be used as a short-term “circuit breaker”. But as the boats keep arriving and amid ongoing reports of sub-standard conditions, self-harm and distress among offshore detainees, the question must be asked: exactly which circuits did the panel think would be broken by returning to this much-condemned policy?

Over recent years, the advice from government agencies has been clear — setting up detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea would not act as a deterrent to boat arrivals. If the Pacific Solution had led to a decrease in boats after 2001 (and the point is arguable), the same result could not be repeated today.

John Howard’s Pacific Solution was always more about politics than good policy, and since 2010 it has served as the political plaything of a pugilistic Opposition Leader. All Julia Gillard needed to do was pick up the phone to Nauru and the boats would stop, cried Tony Abbott and his supporters. The detention centre in Nauru was ready to receive asylum seekers, “it’s in good condition, it could be reopened within a matter of weeks, and I think Nauru would send the strongest possible signal to the people smugglers”, Abbott told the Nine network.

But Abbott was not being honest. The centres in Nauru and PNG were not ready to go at short notice, and the tin-eared people smugglers have predictably overwhelmed the offshore capacity, ensuring that most future arrivals will be processed in Australia. If not for a range of factors working in his favour, Howard would have faced the same scenario in 2001.

Current conditions in the offshore centres are clearly inadequate and well below acceptable standards in Australia. Reports from the UN Refugee Agency are disturbing, and promises from all governments to allow freedom for asylum seekers are yet to be honoured. Australian media and other independent visitors are usually banned from both centres.

The Nauru government has cried foul over past reporting of the “appalling” conditions in its camps. In 2010, former president Marcus Stephen said: “We should have brought in media people to have a look at the place. I don’t know why the media were not allowed to come.”

So if it was a mistake to ban journalists in 2001 and current conditions are up to acceptable standards — as we’re being told — why not let in media? Why not allow Australians to see how our money is being spent and how detainees are treated? The aBC’s Jeff Waters is more than willing to reveal the truth of current arrangements in Nauru — he has been trying to gain access for months — so why not let him in?

… the government is using the concept to justify lowered standards of treatment for asylum seekers and delays in processing claims.”

The lack of transparency and accountability under Howard’s Pacific Solution has left a stain on all governments involved. When the camps were closed in 2008, Labor said Howard’s policy was cruel and ineffective. But even with the benefit of hindsight, current governments in all countries seem intent on repeating past mistakes and adding new missteps.

Gillard said this week: “The only thing that happens for people in our asylum seeker facilities is there is a proper assessment of whether or not they are a genuine refugee.” But Gillard’s words rattle with emptiness when no processing has yet taken place in Nauru or PNG, more than five months since the first asylum seekers arrived, and no start date for determinations is in sight.

Camp conditions will undoubtedly improve over coming months, and more permanent accommodation will replace tents and dongas. But the unresolved and ever-present question of “what will happen to me” will torture detainees for as long as they remain in a deliberately imposed limbo. Will I have a future? How long will I be forced to live with the crippling effects of uncertainty? Where will I be living in one, two or three years? How can I care for my children behind these fences? The governments deciding the fate of current detainees are unwilling to provide the answers.

The “no advantage” concept, underpinning many current decisions, was recommended by the Houston panel to try to level the playing field for refugees in the region. But the idea is meaningless when a fair regional system is not in place and when some asylum seekers are allowed to remain in Australia and others are shipped off to island detention centres. In practice, the government is using the concept to justify lowered standards of treatment for asylum seekers and delays in processing claims.

The reopening of offshore centres has served as a political circuit breaker for the Gillard government — by adopting Tony Abbott’s policy, the government at least looks like it’s doing something to “stop the boats”. The voters in Western Sydney might have exhaled for just a moment. But the smoke and mirrors approach has meant returning to a policy that diverts Australian money, energy and attention away from innovative and long-term approaches to a policy that deliberately harms human beings — this time chosen randomly from the thousands who have arrived in recent months — in an attempt to scare away others.

Rather than investing in and stepping up our engagement in the region, the government is diverting millions of dollars to build permanent facilities in Nauru and Papua New Guinea — countries with little relevance to a genuine regional arrangement. And regardless of whether or not a single asylum seeker is deterred from arriving to Australia, Australians will be forced to fund these Pacific cash cows for many years to come.

*Susan Metcalfe made numerous visits to the Nauru detention centre between 2005 and 2008

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  • 1
    Andybob
    Posted Wednesday, 27 February 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    This issue has sunk so low that it is no longer about principle or humanitarian concepts. It’s not even about the level of boat arrivals. It’s all about the politics of the issue in marginal seats and whether there are any responsive buttons that can be pushed by either party for electoral gain.

    I will not vote for a party which practices arbitrary detention of asylum seekers for the purpose of deterring others. It’s just wrong and is never justified by the risks asylum seekers run in getting here. Do we refuse to treat smokers in hospital in order to deter others from engaging in such risk taking behaviour ?

    I am surprised and disappointed that Mark Dreyfus is prepared to serve as the chief law officer of a regime that practices such a policy.

  • 2
    CML
    Posted Wednesday, 27 February 2013 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    All very well, Andybob, but what is your solution? Apart from letting everyone into this country and permitting the people smugglers to run our immigration policy for us, just what else do you have to say? Your outrage is a joke.
    I see that the policy you advocate has resulted in the r+pe of a student in a university residence, by one of your “on-shore processed” asylum seeker/refugee types. I guess you think that kind of behaviour is okay? WELL I DON’T!
    I just hope that taxpayer’s money is not used by refugee advocate lawyers to justify that man remaining in Australia. He should be deported as soon as possible.

  • 3
    Phil L
    Posted Wednesday, 27 February 2013 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    I’m very open to a more humane asylum policy but have no idea how many more refugees we would have to accommodate if we agreed to full onshore processing and in-community accommodation, and worry that we would not have the ability to support ongoing.

    Has anyone done any forecasting on the numbers such a policy reversal would have on those trying to get here by boats?

  • 4
    Andybob
    Posted Wednesday, 27 February 2013 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    The first question CML is what is the problem ?

    Your pining for an impermeable border is unrealistic. Attempts to create one are simply doomed to failure. Our geography actually results in us having a much lower incidence of asylum seekers than our relative national peers in the world, but instead of just dealing with our non-problem in a businesslike way, we panic at the push of some emotional button; such as the rape strawman you descended to.

    I prefer a policy that complies with our treaty obligations and doesn’t show us up as bigotted whingers.

  • 5
    Steve777
    Posted Wednesday, 27 February 2013 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    CML - “I see that the policy you advocate has resulted in the r+pe of a student in a university residence, by one of your “on-shore processed” asylum seeker/refugee types. I guess you think that kind of behaviour is okay? WELL I DON’T!”

    That’s BS and you know it. Save it for 2GB and the Daily Telegraph.

  • 6
    Student T
    Posted Wednesday, 27 February 2013 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Has anyone done any forecasting on the numbers such a policy reversal would have on those trying to get here by boats?” What is known is that the number of asylum seekers in Malaysia and Indonesia is several hundred thousand. One imagines that if they ARE genuine refugees and if they know they would be processed sympathetically, then only the lack of $10,000 would stop them all coming.

    If it were only a few hundred thousand, I would say let them. But there are 10 to 20 million behind them.

    I really do not see any solution apart from extreme deterrence - a formal policy that anyone who arrives in Australia from a remote region, can never, ever get residency. You apply there if possible - not here. It is harsh, but it would stop people coming. Does anybody think it wouldn’t?

  • 7
    David Coles
    Posted Wednesday, 27 February 2013 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    It is clearly very obvious that sending asylum seekers off shore will not stop the boats and is harmful but where is an alternative that will do something to convince asylum seekers that they shouldn’t get on leaky boats. Perhaps we really should vote Tony Abbott into power. Then we will quickly have a country that will be unattractive to any discerning person.

  • 8
    CML
    Posted Thursday, 28 February 2013 at 3:24 am | Permalink

    @ Steve777 - Why is this statement “BS”? Are you denying that this happened? If so, you need to become better informed. I just love these refugee advocate lawyers who say that it is only ONE r+pe! If it was themselves, their daughter, wife, sister, etc. who was s+xually assaulted, I bet they would have a quite different reaction.
    Any refugee who is charged, and convicted, of a crime such as this should be deported. No ifs or buts about it. Why would we want to import r+pists into this country?

  • 9
    CML
    Posted Thursday, 28 February 2013 at 3:54 am | Permalink

    @ Steve777 - Forgot to say that trying to paint me as a far-right media consumer is way off the mark. I do not live in NSW, have never listened to 2GB, or read the Daily Telegraph. In fact, I don’t read anything coming out of the Ltd. News stable.
    I’m just a realist who attempts to look ten or twenty years down the track, and what I see is increased tension in the community, perhaps riots and probably “homegrown” terrorism. If you find that confronting, take a good look at UK/Europe today, because that is where we will be in the not too distant future. We travel to Scotland regularly for family reasons, and each time we go, it is obvious that non-acceptance of refugees, especially from the middle-east and sub-continent, has increased markedly throughout the UK.
    People like yourself who think we should accept all-comers, need to get out more!

  • 10
    Steve777
    Posted Thursday, 28 February 2013 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    CML - you’re attacking a bunch of straw men.
    - I am not denying that an asylum seeker has been arrested on suspicion of committing a serious crime. The matter is with the police.
    - Like everyone else in the country - citizens, visitors, permanenent resident, etc - asylum seekers in or out of detention are bound by and under the protection of Australian law
    - No one is saying r* is not serious, no matter who the victim is or who the perpetrator is
    - non citizens are subject to deportation if the are CONVICTED of a serious crime

    - OK, I believe you if you say that you don’t consume Murdoch media or listen to shock jocks. However, your comments are pretty characteristic of what one would find being published / broadcast in those media - basically demonising a group you don’t like on the basis of one case of (unproven) serious misbehaviour and misrepresenting the position of those who disagree.
    - I do not say we should accept all comers. I do say we should keep to the treaty obligations we took on under the Refugee Convention. I believe that we should be building a regional solution to combat people-smuggling and to establish an orderly program to resettle genuine refugees.
    - Your comment re the situation in Europe/UK - fair enough. Some European countries have been less successful than Australia in integrating immigrants. Australia has had a pretty good record so far with waves of settlers first from Southern and eastern Europe, then Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia. At the time, newcomers were demonised in some quarters but they have helped to create a more vibrant and prosperous Australia.

  • 11
    Rena Zurawel
    Posted Thursday, 28 February 2013 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    Have we started the election campaign, yet?
    It looks we will start and finish off the campaign bickering about refugees as we have no other problems to discuss.
    Some people may think that the only migrants coming to Australia are boat people.
    (They constitute only about 1% of all the migrant intake..)

    But we should never forget the LAW. (Migration Act)
    If a policy overrides the law - there is no law in existence, or is it?
    And how can we define a policy based on prejudice???

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