The decision by the Government to withdraw its amendments to the Immigration Act marks an important stage in the rehabilitation of Australia’s international reputation. It has been a remarkable battle that has crossed the partisan lines of politics. Members of both major parties have lobbied from within, working with a significant people’s movement that has mobilised to change broader public opinion. Given the political climate of the 2001 federal election, the turnaround is truly remarkable.
It is important to realise that this latest victory simply maintains the status quo. Asylum seekers remain on Nauru; eight more people have been sent to the island nation for processing in the past week. The withdrawal of the latest Bill ensures the gains won by dissident backbenchers last year remain in place. However, the Pacific Solution (or Pacific Strategy as the Government calls it) remains in place.
This system is not sustainable, nor is it defensible. Australia needs to take a more proactive role in monitoring the fate of those asylum seekers we turn away. The Government claims that people have returned to their country voluntarily, with a cash payment of $2,000. The stories detailed by asylum seekers in Afghanistan, and those from Nauru who were later found to be refugees and allowed to stay in Australia, are very different.
There is a consistent story emerging from these refugees. Asylum seekers on Nauru are told they cannot stay. They are told that if they did not go back they would face being forcibly removed later. They are told if they stay they will rot in detention for years, never see their families, and never be allowed to stay in Australia. They are also told that places such as Kabul are now safe. It wasn’t two years ago, and it isn’t now.
Nauru does not work because it is outside the system of checks and balances that ordinarily make the system work. Time after time, cases coming before the Refugee Review Tribunal and the courts turn up instances of injustice. One might wonder if there is a culture or doctrine of initially refusing all claims.
Now that the parliament has shown that it is no longer willing to play politics with people’s lives there is an opportunity for a genuine and mature debate. The policy of off-shore processing, whereby Australia places people outside the reach of the legal system, cannot continue. Those who fled from the Taliban are not, and were not, the Taliban.
While it is good that the laws proposed by the Howard Government have been rejected by right-thinking members of both parties, the status quo is not something to celebrate. A broader debate that treats this issue with the maturity and gravity it deserves is long overdue. What the nation, and the parliament, needs to ask itself is how can we better guarantee the dignity and rights and refugees that seek asylum in this country, without compromising our own security and common wealth.
Edited by James Massola from the original Eureka Street article. For the piece in full, click here.