Bernard Keane wrote yesterday that “there appear to be four grounds for criticising the government’s excision of the mainland, none of which are valid reasons for opposing it”. Amnesty International remains firmly opposed to the government’s excision policy and, as I was quoted in Keane’s article, we would especially like to reiterate that our criticisms are entirely valid.

The first criticism has little to do with our work. Amnesty International has no problem with politicians changing their position — indeed that is what we often call for to improve human rights around the world. Amnesty International has remained consistent in our opposition to excision since it was first introduced in 2001.

The second point is that the bill does not change Australia’s borders or even its migration zone, but merely restricts access to that zone for a certain type of arrival — asylum seekers who come by sea without documentation. This is indeed the case, and in effect, is exactly what I said in the quote that Keane dismissed in his claim that the bill does nothing of the sort.

Instead of arguing about the semantics of a bill cleverly worded to avoid legal challenges or international condemnation, let’s look at what the bill will actually mean.

For people without a visa who are seeking protection at Australia’s borders, it means the Migration Act is now gone.

Which brings us to Keane’s third point: that the UNHCR has rejected the idea that excision diminishes our international obligations under the Refugee Convention. Without wanting to speak for the UNHCR, I think Keane has seriously misinterpreted their statement. It does not come as confirmation that Australia has not breached its international obligations, but as a warning that excision legislation does not give it a legal excuse to do so.

Keane’s last point — that excision is not inhumane because, like all the Houston report recommendations, it is aimed at saving lives — is perhaps the most worrying. It’s hard to think of any other situation where people argue that it is acceptable, let alone humane, to punish innocent victims in order to send a message to future innocent victims.

The report itself states that Australian-based deterrents would only ever work as short-term “circuit breakers”. What the report calls for to save lives in the medium-to-long term is Australia working towards greater refugee protection in the region. A small part of this, as Keane argues, is the increase in Australia’s resettlement, but the real deal when it comes to saving lives and stopping boats is increasing the protection of refugees in our neighbouring countries.

And here we come to the core problem of both the Houston report and Keane’s article. The short-term, Australia-focused deterrent policies being enacted by the government right now are actually undermining the long-term regional protection policies that will actually work.

After all, if Australia is willing to go to such extreme lengths to avoid protecting refugees, why should Malaysia, Thailand or Pakistan do any better?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey