The government’s asylum seeker policy is a dichotomy of great success and massive failure, and the latter is seriously endangering the overall policy. And while the government can blame Labor for the caseload it inherited, its failure over the last three years is entirely of its own making.

The success has been in stopping and turning back asylum seeker boats, albeit at the cost of disrupted relations with Indonesia and endangering asylum seekers loaded into boats and dispatched back to Indonesia. But while the government might lie about the number of boats that have made it to Australia on its watch and use national security as a cloak to hide legitimate scrutiny of its activities, it has enjoyed great success in ending maritime arrivals and the attendant risks of deaths at sea between Indonesia and Australia.

But the offshore processing component of its policy has been every bit as great a failure as boat turnbacks have been a success. Instead of offshore processing providing a safe, temporary environment while permanent resettlement was prepared for asylum seekers found to be refugees, it has become a permanent, nightmarish limbo characterised by death, rape, child abuse, harassment and a complete failure of resettlement options.

Under the Howard government’s original “Pacific Solution”, most refugees were eventually relocated in Australia, New Zealand or, for a small number, a third Western country. But under the bipartisan deterrence policy (initiated by Kevin Rudd) of preventing any resettlement in Australia (or other Western countries — New Zealand’s offer to take some asylum seekers has been persistently rejected by the government), the government has tied its own hands and now cannot change course without massively damaging its credibility.

In the meantime, the government has utterly failed to successfully pursue the logical resolution of permanent resettlement — a regional solution. Labor’s deal with PNG for resettlement of refugees has resulted in, by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s admission, fewer than 20 refugees resettled in the PNG community. But the Coalition’s own deal with the Cambodian regime was even worse — it would be the stuff of low comedy except for its impact on human lives; its efforts to negotiate deals elsewhere have come to nought. No wonder Tony Abbott now regrets blocking Labor’s Malaysian Solution — the Coalition is now facing the lingering consequences of its attacks on that country’s government for political point scoring when in opposition.

And far from providing a safe environment for refugees while they “await resettlement”, the government has adopted a deliberate policy of outsourcing responsibility for the treatment of asylum seekers to the tinpot banana republic of Nauru, which treats asylum seekers as, at best, second-class citizens who can be routinely harassed, abused, attacked and raped by locals with minimal legal recourse. Those services that are directly controlled by the Australian government, such as health services, are grossly inadequate and hampered by the Department of Immigration’s obsession with preventing travel off Nauru. Indeed, the Department of Immigration’s primary function in relation to offshore detention is to prevent scrutiny of what occurs on the island through a combination of threats, police investigations and denials.

However, the evidence continues to mount of gross abuses occurring to people under Australia’s care, in a steady drip of good journalism (especially by The Guardian), whistleblowers’ courage and independent reports by respected bodies like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty. These have slowly penetrated the electorate, which until recently has been happy for the government to deliberately exploit an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to the issue, but which is now showing signs of discomfort about the abuse of asylum seekers, and in particular children, occurring on our watch. During the election, the Coalition’s lead over Labor in terms of trust in its capacity to handle the issue of asylum seekers had fallen to just four points; in late 2013, the Coalition led on that issue by 18 points. While that partly is testament to Bill Shorten’s effectiveness at nullifying the issue, it’s a remarkable outcome for a government that was so effective at stopping asylum seeker arrivals.

The result is that the Coalition may be facing a David Hicks moment about Nauru, when electoral indifference or even hostility transform into anger at a manifest injustice that forces the government to rapidly craft a solution it has resisted for years. The interruptions at speeches that the Prime Minister endured yesterday will only grow more regular and louder the longer the abuse of asylum seekers on Nauru is permitted to continue.

The PNG government decision to close the Manus facility will also shine a light on the government’s failure to achieve any sort of regional resettlement solution, and its ongoing resistance to resettlement of asylum seekers in Western countries. Dutton is correct that asylum seekers found not to be genuine refugees who cannot be returned to Iran are particularly problematic; ongoing detention for people who have attempted to illegally migrate to Australia until they agree to return is a regrettable but necessary mechanism. But they only form a small minority; the vast bulk of asylum seekers on Manus are legitimate refugees. At the moment, the government appears to have no plan other than to hope the PNG government finds a way to dramatically and massively increase resettlement in PNG, and make it work (that government, of course, doesn’t have any other problems to worry about) or to turn up a regional agreement that it has been unable to achieve for three years.

But offshore processing in its current, grossly inadequate form can’t last much longer, not without exacting a serious political toll on the government. It can rail at the media all it likes, it can blame “refugee advocates” and Save The Children all it likes, but the failure of offshore processing is its own responsibility.

Peter Fray

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today and get your first 12 weeks for $12.

Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW