Refugees hunger striking at the Immigration Detention Centre on Manus Island.  Source: Ian Rintoul

As is always the case with asylum seeker policy, much of the reporting on the current disturbances on Manus Island, and nearly all of the government’s response, is based on moralising. Both coverage and commentary in The Guardian, which devotes considerable space to the asylum seeker issue, is based on a standing objection to offshore processing of any kind; an op-ed today compared Australian policy to terrorism, yet another addition to the long list of ways in which the Left has demonstrated its utter inability to meaningfully communicate with mainstream voters about asylum seekers.

But the government’s response, too, is based on moralising. Last week, new Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, the man who proved a comprehensive failure in the Health portfolio, referred to “ringleaders and … people outside of the facility who believe that they are helpful in agitating for noncompliance” and “people that are stirring trouble”. Yesterday he referred to the “failure of this group to cease their disturbing actions” as “irresponsible”. They had, he claimed, threatened staff; he attacked the media for reporting the claims of detainees and asylum seeker advocates (while refusing to allow the media access to the facility to test claims) and demanded detainees “cease their aggressive actions”. The Prime Minister cast the issue purely as one of control versus chaos, saying “the important thing is that order has been restored”, just as former immigration minister Scott Morrison immediately followed his acknowledgement that Reza Barati had been killed by observing that breakfast had been served in the facility.

The relentless focus on moralising from both sides obscures the extent to which what is happening on Manus Island — and it will go on happening, regardless of how often “order is restored” — is a policy failure brought about by the evolution of one component of asylum seeker policy — deterrence — faster than others.

Go back to the recommendations prepared for the Gillard government by Angus Houston, Michael L’Estrange and Paris Aristotle in 2012 — the last serious attempt to craft a coherent policy response on asylum seekers. That group sought to address the problem of fatal boat trips by asylum seekers by rebalancing incentives dramatically away from maritime boat arrivals toward more traditional forms of humanitarian resettlement — significantly increasing the latter (since reversed, then partially un-reversed, by this government) while re-establishing offshore processing and applying a no-advantage principle. Under that principle, maritime arrivals who wanted to come to Australia would get no advantage over an applicant stuck in a refugee camp on the other side of the globe. But recognising that this would occasion an extended period of detention, potentially for several years, it recommended that high-quality health and education services be provided by detainees held offshore, including, crucially, mental health services.

“This isn’t a coherent policy. Its logical endpoint is that detainees will either give up and return to their countries of origin (which so far shows little sign of happening), kill themselves in detention or be killed by angry locals.”

To the extent that the “no advantage” based policy was ever applied systematically, it was abandoned by newly restored Kevin Rudd altogether in 2013 when he announced a deal with Papua New Guinea, in which that government would be bribed to permanently resettle asylum seekers, allowing Rudd to tell asylum seekers they would never come to Australia at all. While Scott Morrison added the flourish of turning back boats (breaching international law and offending Indonesia in doing so) and running prison ghost ships off Christmas Island, current Australian policy essentially started with the Rudd announcement. The deterrent would now be that not merely would you never settle in Australia, but you would instead be sent to Papua New Guinea or Nauru, both of which are arguably worse places in which to live than the countries that asylum seekers have fled from. Deterrence had switched to exemplary punishment. And the punishment was made all the worse by PNG’s refusal, for an extended period, to actually process anyone. The policy has long been, in effect, one of offshore detention, not offshore processing.

Along the way, the Houston-L’Estrange-Aristotle coherence was lost. With the focus on punishment, any concern for the welfare of detainees (which is what they have been, rather than “transferees”) was abandoned. The murder of detainee Barati by a PNG local working for a service provider, rather than signalling problems in the policy, was used by then-minister Scott Morrison in the same moral terms as Dutton — Barati, Morrison initially claimed, was responsible for his own murder because he’d tried to escape, and it should be a lesson to other detainees. Morrison later backtracked when the truth emerged that the only escape Barati had been attempting was from people trying to murder him within the facility.

That sordid moment of Morrison moralising illustrates another feature of the government’s response — to attempt to cover any embarrassing issue up. It does this by refusing to allow media access to the facilities, by the Immigration Department trying to prevent contractors from revealing the truth about its treatment of detainees on Nauru, and by insisting only its version of events on the ground is true — even though we know how Morrison twisted and obfuscated, if not outright lied, about the murder of Barati.

But just as the Left’s moralising about asylum seekers could never wish away the core problem — the absurd refrain “let them all come” simply glossed over that that meant handing over control of Australia’s immigration program to self-selecting, well-resourced migrants and people smugglers — the government’s moralising about miscreant asylum seekers and irresponsible supporters can’t cover up and wish away the result of the Rudd-Abbott policy of punishing asylum seekers. The policy has, according to publicly available information, been effective in stopping maritime arrivals, but it leaves hundreds of detainees in Australian hands (however much we might pretend they’re PNG’s responsibility) in a tropical purgatory with a snail’s pace assessment process and release into the PNG community — which might be as dangerous as anything they faced in the countries they fled from — as the “reward” for those judged to be genuine refugees.

This isn’t a coherent policy. Its logical endpoint is that detainees will either give up and return to their countries of origin (which so far shows little sign of happening), kill themselves in detention or be killed by angry locals. Under the current policy, there is no rational path forward other than those options. For a policy founded on the alleged need to stop asylum seekers dying on the voyage to Australia, it makes no sense. And the results — violence, hunger strikes, self-harm — will continue at a greater or lesser tempo while it is in place.

Peter Fray

Save 50% on a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

The US election is in a little over a month. It seems that there’s a ridiculous twist in the story, almost every day.

Luckily for new Crikey subscribers, we’ve teamed up with one of America’s best publications, The Atlantic for the election race. Subscribe now to make sense of it all, and you’ll get a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year’s digital subscription to The Atlantic (usually $70AUD), BOTH for just $129.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW