The future direction of a major aspect of Australia’s asylum seeker policy is in the balance right now, with potentially very significant future impacts for many refugees, as well as for regional relations and the treatment of people moving through the region. The ‘tough & humane’ mantra of the federal government could end up tipping very heavily towards just one of those words – the key is which one it ends up being.
The Labor government made some significant changes on coming to office. Most important was the scrapping of the cruel and counter-productive temporary protection visa and the closure of the centre on Nauru. Having done those things, a lot of what is now getting so much public attention about the so-called ‘Indonesia Solution’ is not really very new.
Australian has been cooperating with Indonesia on trying disrupt asylum seeker boats since the Howard era. Funding has also been provided for some time to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to process asylum claims lodged in Indonesia and to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to help with the basic survival for those still there and with possible returns to other countries.
What is new is that people are starting to pay attention and look at what all this entails, both in terms of treatment of asylum seekers and the overall cost. As reported in Crikey last week, independent and committed advocates such as Jessie Taylor and Kaye Bernard have travelled through the region gathering evidence of the conditions asylum seekers are being kept in for long periods. Their findings are grim. Some mainstream media journalists are doing the same, as shown in this report in The Australian over the weekend.
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The simple fact is that the ‘accommodation’ many asylum seekers have been kept in ranges from adequate to appalling. The Australian government, having gone on at length about the increasing cooperation with the Indonesian government, cannot now simply sidestep their responsibilities by saying the conditions are the responsibility of the UNHCR and IOM.
It seems we may be about to enter a major irony situation, whether the Coalition will be attacking the Labor government for funding the locking up of children behind razor wire and keeping refugees detained for long periods in terrible conditions with no certainty about their future.
It would be a welcome extra irony if all of this attention and pressure on the Australian government and their responsibility for what happens with the detention, processing and resettling of refugees in our region were to lead to a truly regional approach to effectively, efficiently and fairly manage this issue, with corresponding improvements in the way people in detention are treated in Indonesia (and ideally in Malaysia as well, where the treatment of refugee claimants is on the whole much worse again.
Such a result is a long shot, but as it is very unlikely the Australian government will reverse cooperation with other major transit countries in our region, we may as well try to apply maximum scrutiny and pressure about what is done there, and see if the standard can end up being lifted across the region. Who knows, maybe regional cooperation and a recognition that taking in refugees does no great harm to a country might even lead to a more effective and safer process for assisting asylum seekers! OK, I know that’s all very unlikely, but it will only be a chance of happening if the public scrutiny continues.
One of the big factors which assisted the Howard government in managing public perceptions under the Pacific Solution was a government in Nauru which was mostly happy to leave the whole thing to the Australian government – in return for various other forms of assistance – and even more importantly, performed the vital role of virtually closing the country off to any lawyers, journalists and other visitors from Australia. When I first visited the detention centres in Nauru in 2003, the hundreds of refugees still there – including many children – had already been there two years with barely a single visitor from ‘outside’ the progression of Australian government officials. That can’t and won’t happen in Indonesia. The key question is whether people will keep paying enough attention long enough to ensure big improvements happen.