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Asia-Pacific

Sep 22, 2017

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In the paved backyard beyond a dishevelled house on Haldon Street, young and middle-aged men are arriving one by one. Traversing a concrete path that skirts the property’s boundary they cross the courtyard and arrive at a tiny, cubby-house-like shed. Inside the makeshift office, where there is barely enough room for the dozen people gathered, tales of mass killings are being gathered and annotated.

Lakemba, in Sydney’s south-west, is a hub for Australia’s Rohingya community, to which the men belong. Since violence against the ethnic minority group in Myanmar erupted in late August, rising to a level the United Nations has described as “ethnic cleansing”, the community has convulsed as family members disappear and rumours trickle out from Rakhine state.

Rumours at first, and then more. Connected to large extended families back in Myanmar, the community in Lakemba has been receiving evidence of violence in real time in the form of photos, videos, and witness accounts smuggled out of the shuttered state via messaging apps and social media. Some are pulled off social media. Other come directly from friends and relatives still in Myanmar.

The group of men assembled in the cubby-house office are executive members of Burmese Rohingya Community Australia (BRCA), a community group desperately working to respond to the crisis.

Before the meeting starts, one man produces audio sent to him by an aunt who remains in Rakhine state. As the recording plays, her words quickly break to quivers and then tears. Her nephew translates briefly: she is describing a mass killing she says she was witness to, in which men were taken from a group sheltering in a secluded jungle home and executed. On returning to the village, locals performed a head-count: 81 men were missing.

Crikey is not able to independently verify the account.

Another man shows me photos of wooden rubble, smouldering beneath a pile of iron roofing. He says they were taken earlier in the week after seven houses in his home village were burnt down. His relatives are stranded: too far from the border to flee by foot but clearly unsafe where they are.

Daniel Taylor, an Australian migration agent with close ties to Lakemba’s Rohingya community, says he has been shown an image of a charred body. The image is understood to have been sent directly by a family member who remains in the village.

[Ethnic tensions seethe in Myanmar as persecuted Rohingya radicalise]

According to Ahsan Haque, BRCA’s media officer, there are now hundreds — if not thousands — of images and files held by the community. BRCA is trying to collect them, turning itself into a makeshift archive and off-site fact-finding mission. On a little table is an A4 sheet of paper with the names of villages and numbers next to them, tallied together, a running score sheet of the missing.

The hope of the project is that it will form part of an international effort to stop Myanmar’s government enabling or pursuing any more violence. The more probable utility, however, is historical. The men believe they are recording an attempted genocide.

While documenting, they are also advocating.

Haque appeared on Q&A this week, pushing panellists to explain why Myanmar should escape sanctions, then privately confronting Senator Penny Wong after being dissatisfied with the responses. Haque says he has phoned the offices of virtually every Coalition senator in recent weeks, encouraging them to support Senate motions put by the Greens and Labor.

But at this stage there is no support for his call for sanctions.

In response to questions from Crikey, Greens Senator Nick McKim said his party backs travel bans and asset freezes on Myanmar’s security officials implicated in abuse.

“We also want see a ban on all assistance and cooperation with Myanmar’s military, and a ban on any financial transactions with key military owned enterprises,” he said.

McKim earlier called for Australia to accept 20,000 additional Rohingya refugees.

Labor Senator Lisa Singh told Crikey that “if sanctions are to be effective they must be supported by the whole international community, which is not yet the case”.

Trevor Wilson, a visiting fellow at Australian National University and ambassador to Myanmar from 2000-2003, says Australia’s options for pressuring the government in Naypyidaw may be limited.

[Will a visit from Pope Francis compel Aung San Suu Kyi to act?]

“Australia is primarily an aid donor; I mean that’s the main role we have. We’re friendly with their government but not an ally or anything like that.”

Wilson says after Australia lifted economic sanctions on Myanmar in 2012, some self-imposed restrictions on military-to-military contact and intelligence sharing have remained, though Australian police do provide some training assistants to their counterparts.

Earlier in September, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced $5 million in funding to help displaced Rohingya, a number that was topped up with a further $15 million this week. As noted by The Guardian, the government continues to offer payments to Rohingya asylum seekers being held in Australian backed detention centres, encouraging them to return to their crisis plagued homeland.

As hundreds of thousands of Rohingya flee to Bangladesh, BRCA is planning to send aid directly, and some in Lakemba are taking drastic measures to assist their relatives back home.

Among them is 30-year-old Sajeda, who lost contact with three of her Myanmar-based siblings in recent weeks. Having never travelled to the country before, she is asking the Australian government permission to fly to Bangladesh.

Unsure of their location, or if they are even still alive, she will head to a nation of 163 million people and try to find her siblings among the burgeoning refugee camps that house those who survive the exodus.

Federal

Sep 1, 2017

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Peter Dutton could have stood on the Supreme Court steps and urinated on the Magna Carta, and he wouldn’t have got as violent a reaction from lawyers as he did for calling us “unAustralian”. Dudgeon levels were at an all-time high.

I was sufficiently offended myself to tell Dutton to fuck off by tweet, which sent our Twitter account somewhat viral for a bit. Are the lawyers merely exposing the thin skins of our ivory towers, or has the minister gone beyond the pale?

The correct answer is “who cares?”. In these times of serial institutional collapse, the notion that any normal person should give a toss about an ultra-conservative minister saying something fascist to a radio shock jock, and how that scandalised the legal profession, is quaintly ridiculous.

So I won’t join the frenzy about how appalling Peter Dutton is. Let’s talk instead about the slow death by strangulation of the rule of law.

I do go on about this a bit, but if you’ve cottoned on yet that the trajectory of the democratic world is pointing straight at the necessary conditions for a return to totalitarianism, you should know that the last two institutions that provide any check on unrestricted executive power are the Church and the courts. The Church, sadly, is mostly now a cautionary tale with little remaining moral authority. So really it’s just the judges we’ll be finally looking to for protection of our ephemeral human rights, before all those jokes about the Border Force’s uniforms cease to be funny (or allowed).

That’s the context for reflection on Dutton’s ostensibly loose language. UnAustralian is what he called the lawyers who act, pro bono, for refugees and asylum seekers. Insulting and outrageous, sure, but what lies beneath the gratuitous offence?

Asylum seekers are not citizens, but the law recognises that they have identical rights to citizens in their ability to access the protection of Australian courts. Although the government has enormous power within the constitution to interfere with their freedom to an almost limitless degree, nevertheless it is constrained by some basic principles such as the one that says it can’t detain anyone without proper cause.  

[Government cynically seeks asylum from the judiciary when it comes to refugees]

The law of migration is incredibly, impenetrably complex. Apart from the extreme difficulty of the hoops that the Immigration Department makes visa-seekers jump through, the governing legislation is long, dense and amended with head-spinning frequency. No one other than a specialist immigration lawyer can navigate their way through this metaphorical sea with any hope of success.

So asylum seekers need help. Lawyers, lots of lawyers, have put up their hands to offer that help, mostly for free. They include barristers, big firm solicitors, suburban lawyers, community legal centres. There’s no reason to do this work other than to help.

Dutton paints a more complex picture, in which asylum seekers and their lawyers are not helpless people being helped by selfless lawyers, but professional con artists gaming the legal system assisted by cynical lawyers sacrificing the national interest for fun and profit.

The truth is at neither extreme, but again, who cares? The issue with Dutton’s assault isn’t his hyperbolic defamation but his conscious undermining of a fundamental feature of the rule of law: the right of individuals to seek legal help, and the responsibility of lawyers to provide it.  

This has been a constant for the Abbott/Turnbull governments. Ministers have too frequently been prepared to criticise the courts and portray the legal system as an inconvenient obstacle to the smooth running of their business rather than an essential bulwark against executive excess.

The miscreants include the Attorney-General George Brandis, who attacked his own solicitor-general for not doing his bidding, tried to circumscribe his independence and ultimately drove him from office, while publicly undermining the head of the Human Rights Commission and trying to force her out too.

Tony Abbott has a famous disregard for the separation of powers, but he is best left alone. His urbane faux doppelganger, the current Prime Minister, overstepped gloriously during the recent citizenship debacle when he told Parliament how the High Court will rule on Barnaby Joyce’s case. He knows how egregious an error that was, but he apparently doesn’t care because he hasn’t retracted it.

[Government makes Barnaby Joyce’s stuff-up even worse]

In one sense, it’s good that this government has become increasingly loose with its willingness to overstep the conventionally respected boundaries that preserve the judiciary’s role as the unquestioned peak branch of government. It serves to remind us of what’s going on under the covers.

The same government has been assiduous in its pursuit of the extension of executive power. In national security and immigration (which it treats as the same thing), this has been non-stop. One random example: Dutton now has the legislated sole discretion to determine whether a particular region of any country is experiencing conditions such that a refugee’s fear of being persecuted there is genuinely felt. He can thus effectively change the definition of a refugee under the Refugee Convention.

The Immigration Minister has myriad other personal powers and discretions. He stands as legal guardian to many refugees; he makes decisions as to the national interest, on national security, about the intentions, desires, hopes and dreams of individuals. And he determines their physical fate.

So, when that Minister says that it’s unAustralian for an Australian lawyer to offer their expertise in helping an asylum seeker pursue their legal rights and entitlements, he is sending an unequivocal signal that he holds those rights to be non-existent, insignificant or, at best, an inconvenience.

This is important because, where a minister exercises discretionary power, they are assumed to do so impartially and without bias. When the minister has apparently predetermined on a global basis that all asylum seekers are scammers who do not deserve the protection of Australian law, which must be so because why else would he demand that lawyers refuse to assist them, then only one conclusion can follow. In any case in which Dutton is called on to exercise his discretion, he will start from the assumption which he has already stated.

Donald Trump came a cropper in attempting to implement his Muslim travel bans, because the US courts quoted his own words back at him as evidence that the geography-based pretence of his executive orders was a sham, and his intention was to achieve exactly what he had explicitly said: a ban targeted exclusively at Muslims.

Australian judges can also read. In any upcoming case in which Peter Dutton has exercised his powers to the detriment of an asylum seeker — for example, if he moves against one of those asylum seekers directly affected by this week’s move to remove all welfare support and coerce people back to Nauru or Manus Island — his own words can and should be used against him to argue that he is activated by a predetermined bias.  

That bias, in the form of his jaundiced opinion of anyone who seeks refugee status under Australian law, reflected in his gratuitous insult to the legal profession which dares assist them as is our right and responsibility, arises not from fact but ignorant bigotry. He has the right to be a bigot, but his exercise of that right disqualifies him from performing the precious responsibility for human lives which he so carelessly wields.

Federal

Aug 29, 2017

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In the aftermath of the revelations that roughly 70 asylum seekers who had been brought to Australia for medical treatment (and stayed thanks to a court injunction) would have their income support cut off and would have three weeks to find alternative accommodation or face deportation, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton talked about the significant costs these asylum seekers imposed upon the taxpayer.

“The medical care has been provided and through tricky legal moves they are now prevented from being returned to their country of origin, Manus or Nauru,” Dutton told the Daily Telegraph.  

“In some cases, this con has been going on for years, costing the Australian taxpayer tens of thousands of dollars for each individual and seeing them receive more welfare, including housing, than pensioners who have worked here all their lives.”

In the interest of saving the Australian taxpayer money, we’ve run the numbers on how expensive it is to house asylum seekers in Australia as compared to housing them in offshore detention on Manus Island or Nauru, which is the government’s preferred option.

As Fairfax’s Tom McIlroy pointed out back in July, offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru have cost Australia nearly $5 billion since 2012. This includes the departmental costs and capital works on the islands. 

The budget allocation for offshore management in the Department of Immigration and Border Protection is projected to be $713.6 million for the financial year 2017-2018. This includes provisions for the health and welfare of detainees, supporting the voluntary return of asylum seekers (and the potentially involuntary return of those found not to be refugees) to their country of origin as well as the building and maintenance of detention facilities.

But the costs have been known to blow out unexpectedly. The 2015-16 budget predicted spending of $810.8 million on offshore detention in 2015-16, but the actual spending in this area ended up being estimated at $1.1 billion.

As of October 2016, there where 1262 refugees on Manus and Nauru. Averaging the government’s own projected cost for the next year, it costs $565,484.15 per person, per year.

According to The Daily Telegraph, the asylum seekers still in Australia after their medical care are costing the government far less. An interactive graphic on the Tele website rattles off a series of costs covered by the government for these refugees that aren’t covered for single age pensioners (moving costs, housing, utilities):  

“By contrast, the freeloaders targeted by Mr Dutton receive a household goods package of $2350, income support of $300 a fortnight, moving costs of $300 and free housing, power bills and healthcare. They are also entitled to an energy payment of $1000.

“Each asylum seeker is costing taxpayers up to $120,000 a year and, in total, their subsidised lifestyle is costing hardworking Aussies $40 million a year.”

Beyond figures presumably provided by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, it’s not entirely clear how they ended up at $120,000 — let alone $40 million per year, as 70 times 120,000 is $8.4 million. But assuming $120,000 is correct (albeit by their own admission at the highest end), then based on the governments own figures, it is a fraction of the cost to provide accomodation for asylum seekers in Australia. 

If we moved all 1262 refugees on Manus to Australia, at 120,000 each it would cost us $151,440,000 per year. Allow them to work (the subjects of Dutton’s latest “tough on asylum seekers” policy have hitherto not been) and that might come down further. At the most generous interpretation of the government figures, it would save hardworking Aussie taxpayers $562,201,000 per year. Maybe some of that freed-up cash could be spent on our poor, neglected pensioners.

Australia

Aug 29, 2017

5 comments

Assume for a moment that Peter Dutton, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, is not a cruel and heartless man who derives pleasure from persecuting the unfortunate. Assume also that the Turnbull government is not so morally debased that its cabinet would sit around discussing what new torture it might inflict on boat people purely as a tactic of distraction, a morsel of red meat for the Murdoch press and shock jocks to noisily chew.

If that’s right — if Dutton is actually human and there’s something going on in the prime ministerial brain beyond his minute-to-minute survival — then why has the government chosen now to introduce its latest weapon of dehumanisation against a tiny group of people it has already reduced to non-person status in the country’s consciousness? What’s the deal with the “final departure bridging E visa”?

Remember when the word “visa” meant something positive? Way back, before immigration became an instrument of national security, a mode of prevention rather than nation-building. Now a visa can signify a status that includes no rights, no support, no hope, but is a tool designed solely to lever people into the conclusion that their only choice is between return to the country they originally fled, or return to a place — Manus Island or Nauru — where hopelessness is the entire design.

This new visa removes from fewer than 100 people presently in Australia, on no notice, their welfare support and gives them three weeks to move out of government-supported accommodation. They will be released into the community, free to work (ho ho, very droll, Minister) provided they’ve signed up to a Code of Behaviour. One wonders what the penalty for non-compliance is, when the choice is between deportation and starvation.

[Why is the government kicking asylum seekers out of their homes?]

The small number of asylum seekers to whom this applies are here because they were brought here for medical treatment, from Manus or Nauru. The government didn’t want to bring them here, didn’t want Australian lawyers to take on their cases, didn’t want the courts to grant injunctions preventing their early return, and wants absolutely anything other than their permanent resettlement in Australia.

But they’re here, they have attracted the support of pro bono lawyers, and the courts have asserted a protective jurisdiction over them. Now getting rid of them is a prickly problem.

The politics of this are apparently obvious. The Coalition’s sole unarguable policy achievement after five years in power is that it stopped the boats. Obviously, it needs to keep them stopped.  

But does that explain this latest brutalisation of some of the most helpless people under our national care? Objectively, this “visa” imposition is an act of gratuitous victimisation. We are talking about a tiny number of people who have no prospects, suffer various health problems that necessitated their removal to Australia for medical treatment, and who genuinely fear persecution or worse in their countries of origin. Does anyone really think that any of the remaining boat arrivals, after all this time, knowing that the Australian government would fly them home any time they asked, is a so-called economic refugee?

Whatever those in the media who trade professionally in xenophobic fear-mongering may choose to believe, or at least spruik, the government knows for sure what these people are: destitute, helpless, lost souls who have nothing left but the faint hope of mercy from a wealthy nation. It knows they present no threat to national security, the welfare budget or social cohesion; at least they wouldn’t if the government stopped telling lies about them.

So, no, the politics don’t quite add up. The Howard government, despite its vaunted commitment to the Pacific Solution and keeping the gates padlocked, quietly resettled almost every asylum seeker from Nauru in Australia, once it had judged that the political mood had moved on. It would be easy for this government to paint these poor people as random victims of misfortune rather than willing manipulators of Australia’s generous nature. And really, who would mind taking a hundred or so residual charity cases, the leftovers as it were from our success at breaking the people smugglers’ business model?

I’ve seen it argued that the disconnection between the policy of stopping the boats and this seemingly endless persecution of asylum seekers is explicable on the basis that the government has lost sight of the end and is now just obsessed by the means. I think that pays way too little respect to the consciousness of Turnbull and his ministers. I think they’re acting rationally, albeit with no conscience and ultimately counter-productively.

[Of all the things we have taken from asylum seekers, the worst by far is hope]

The clue lies in the recent decision by the government to pay $70 million to the asylum seekers on Manus Island, to settle their case against the Commonwealth for wrongful detention. It was an utterly extraordinary thing for the government to do, in circumstances where it has never asserted anything but its 100% confidence that every one of its actions have been lawful. Dutton is never shy about labelling every asylum seeker as a conniving con artist; so it’s a lot more than strange that he decided to throw money at them rather than expose their deceitful ways in open court.

Clearly, the government either knew it was going to lose, or feared what would come out at the hearing — $70 million is a bloody lot of hush money.

The wider issue for the government is the wretched independence of Australian courts. They doggedly insist on not doing the bidding of the government of the day. In the field of immigration in recent years, the High Court in particular has been willing to give the government a wide authority to mistreat asylum seekers and trample all over the Refugee Convention, as the court acknowledges that it has no power to prevent that (international treaties not automatically being part of Australian domestic law).

However, a close student of the subject will have picked up that the courts are ever-wary of the tendency of the executive arm to over-extend. In the case that found the Nauru arrangements lawful, the High Court did make it clear that it was not sanctioning indefinite detention. It was implicitly assuming that, one day, the asylum seekers being held on Nauru would have to be resettled somewhere. It did not let Australia entirely off the hook.

The courts have been prepared to grant injunctions to protect the human rights of asylum seekers that the government denies it needs to observe, as soon as those people come within jurisdictional reach.

The judicial strands are relatively indistinct, but they might be tied together in the government’s nightmares to form a scenario like any of these: Manus and/or Nauru become dangerously untenable, the US doesn’t take the refugees off our hands, there is no alternative regional solution as we continue to refuse to let any of them settle in New Zealand; the asylum seekers are under immediate threat of dying from disease, starvation or local violence. What happens then?

The Australian courts have upheld the validity of the offshore detention arrangements, but they’ve not upheld the Australian government’s pretence that the asylum seekers are entirely not our responsibility. It is possible that, in an extreme situation, the courts might assert jurisdiction across the sea and order these people brought here; a form of habeas corpus, delivery of the body into the court’s protective arms.

That would be a disaster for the government. That’s what it’s desperately trying to avoid. And that’s why it’s trying to force, through the threat of actual destitution, the few asylum seekers who made it to Australia, back to anywhere but here.

The connecting point in this sequence is not the physical presence of a few random asylum seekers in Australia; that’s neither here nor there either politically or legally. The point is what the government is trying to avoid: precedent. As the lawyers look for ever more ways to engage the courts in their strategies to assert and protect the rights of asylum seekers, so the government is becoming ever more intent on not giving the courts the opportunity to rule on those asserted rights. Because the one arm of governmental authority upon which our rampant executive cannot impose its will is the judiciary. And the Coalition government is very uncomfortable with any force outside of its control.

For sure, Dutton is not empathy personified, and Turnbull is, well, nothing much at all. Their latest visa act is vicious and shameful; but it is rational. The game they are playing is avoidance of judicial intervention, and they’ve demonstrated that there are no limits to their expedience in pursuit of that goal.

For asylum seekers and their lawyers, this is actually good news. Now we know what the government fears most.  

Federal

Aug 28, 2017

5 comments

Is the government’s new “tough on asylum seekers” announcement about targeting bludgers getting an easy ride in Australia? Is it a cruel move targeting babies and pregnant women? Or is it about avoiding court cases? As always with Australia’s asylum seeker policy, today’s announcement is high on rhetoric, emotion and hyperbole, and light on detail. So let’s work out what we know.

The government is trying a new “tough on boat people” announcement, with income support and housing to be cut off to asylum seekers living in Australia, in an attempt to force them back to Manus Island or Nauru, or their country of origin. The Daily Telegraph quotes Immigration Minister Peter Dutton saying “the con is up,” while human rights groups have slammed the move, which they have labelled “cruel”. So what is the government’s aim here? Are asylum seekers getting more in benefits than other pensioners? And why are they in Australia in the first place?

How do we know about this?

On Saturday The Age‘s investigative team of Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie reported that leaked government documents showed a new visa called “final departure bridging E visa” would be issued to up to 100 people, possibly including a pregnant woman, who have been in Australia seeking medical treatment. The asylum seekers would be given three weeks to vacate their accommodation, lose their income support and be expected to sign a “Code of Behaviour” for their release into the community.

The government made the official announcement today through a drop to Sharri Markson in The Daily Telegraph, with the focus on asylum seekers receiving government payments and accommodation, and a focus on four asylum seekers with less serious medical conditions. According to Dutton in this report: “The medical care has been provided and through tricky legal moves they are now prevented from being returned to their country of origin, Manus or Nauru.”

Why have these asylum seekers been moved from Manus and Nauru?

The asylum seekers served with these notices today originally came to Australia from offshore detention in order to receive medical treatment, but because of legal injunctions they have not returned, some for up to years. Unlike the thousands of other asylum seekers in Australia waiting for rulings on their refugee status, these asylum seekers have had access to government housing at no cost because they are technically still in detention. A single person receives $300 a fortnight in government benefits. Kon Karapanagiotidis from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre says these asylum seekers represent a tiny proportion of those in Australia’s immigration system, that other asylum seekers who do manage to receive a government payment only get 89% of Newstart allowance, and that it is a myth that asylum seekers are getting a better deal than Australians.

How many people are affected?

Asylum seekers who are in Australia after being transferred from detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru for medical treatment are affected. Some of those transferred have lived in Australia for years, and currently single people are going to be issued the “final departure bridging E visas”, which is where the number of 60-70 people, and possibly up to 100 people, comes from. 

Children are not currently affected, but they are mentioned in the leaked government document, which is why baby Samuel (not his real name) is on the front page of today’s Age, with his parents telling reporters that they are unsure what their future holds and if they will also be served with a notice to vacate and the end of their income support.

Refugee advocates say that up to 400 people are currently in Australia for medical treatment could be affected by the new policy.

Why is the government doing this?

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton says the new visa is all about how much it costs to keep asylum seekers in Australia: “In some cases, this con has been going on for years, costing the Australian taxpayer tens of thousands of dollars for each individual and seeing them receive more welfare, including housing, than pensioners who have worked here all their lives.”

Dutton portrayed the asylum seekers as employing “tricky” legal manoeuvres to stay in Australia, but it is possible the move is part of a ploy to avoid engaging in the legal cases brought by the asylum seekers. The Human Rights Law Centre’s Hugh De Kretser told Sky News this morning that the government had introduced the policy instead of challenging the cases in court.

“At the heart of those claims is a very simple issue, we say that these people would suffer very serious harm if they return to Nauru or Manus Island. The government could choose to challenge those cases in court, it hasn’t done that.”

“Instead what it’s done is announce this policy out of the blue to make them destitute to try and coerce them back to Manus and Nauru.”

The government agreed to pay $70 million to asylum seekers on Manus Island earlier this year, instead of allowing a case challenging their detention being allowed to be heard in court.

Where will they go?

Karapanagiotidis says the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre is gearing up to help the asylum seekers, and is expecting that it will cost $1 million to house 200 of them for a year — that’s $15 a night for each person. The ASRC will launch a public fundraising campaign tomorrow to support the costs of extra case workers as well as accommodation and other costs.

What will happen next?

The Greens and Labor have both blasted the government for the move, with the Greens committing to investigate if the move can be disallowed by the Senate, committing to move a motion on the first day the Senate sits. For this to be successful, Labor would also have to vote to disallow the move. Labor immigration spokesman Shayne Neumann told ABC AM this morning that Labor was also looking into what could be done to stop the move, including finding out if the move to the visas could be disallowed. “We’ll take it through our usual processes,” he said, with decisions to be taken through caucus.

Media

Aug 17, 2017

5 comments

Crikey believes it is important to recognise journalists and editors whose hard work gives the fourth estate the sterling reputation it has in the community. And this week, there is no one more deserving of a Wankley Award than Renee Viellaris of the Courier-Mail for today’s front-page spread on Manus Island detainees having “holidays at an idyllic island”.

 

Viellaris has a long history of hatchet jobs on asylum seekers — there’s a Media Watch demolition of her work nine years ago — but today’s effort in which several detainees, one with “designer stubble and gold-rimmed, aviator sunglasses and an on-trend white shirt”* variously “frolic”, “sip coconut milk from straws” and look “bronzed” could be her crowning achievement.

For Viellaris’ edification, here’s a quick rundown of conditions on Manus Island:

  • one detainee bashed to death by a mob;
  • two detainees died from illnesses, including one who was refused medical evacuation;
  • one detainee drowned;
  • two suicides;
  • drunken PNG soldiers firing weapons into a compound where detainees were located;
  • facility being found to be illegal under PNG law;
  • bashings of detainees by PNG police;
  • government settling a class action claim brought by detainees for $70 million; and
  • the ANAO revealing massive problems and illegal expenditure in the Department of Immigration’s contracting for, and managing of, the operation of the detention facility.

Viellaris was able to find a Queensland senator to deplore the “frolicking” detainees, with LNP senator Barry O’Sullivan declaring, “I’m not pretending it’s Club Med …” O’Sullivan at least brought some factual basis to the article because Manus Island certainly isn’t Club Med — it’s far more expensive. In 2016, the cost of the facility was estimated at $1 million per detainee, as the total cost of Manus Island and the government’s other offshore detention facility headed toward $5 billion.

We can think of no better way to toast Viellaris’ Wankley than to adjust our aviator sunglasses and raise a coconut to say “cheers” to quality journalism.

*yes, we know — what even is an “on-trend white shirt”?

Asia-Pacific

Aug 1, 2017

5 comments

For the last five years, the Australian government has been courting disaster in the Manus Island detention camps, and the wider zone of influence on the island. There has already been violent death, negligent death, sexual abuse and institutional violence in the system. Those were bad enough; a larger, more tragic event, an atrocity, has been avoided. The government now seems intent on creating one, under the cover of a supposedly humanitarian transition in the system.

Close to a year and a half ago, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled that the detention of asylum seekers at the “Foxtrot” camp was illegal under PNG law, and that the government had had no right to make a deal with Australia, dependent on such detention. This was a cause for hope for the detainees and their supporters.

Hope triumphing over bitter experience, as it turned out. In response to the court’s ruling, which should have had the detainees brought to Australian soil, they have been forced out of the camp itself, into either a more open transit centre in another part of the island or into the general Manus Island community. Confusion reigns; the Foxtrot inmates are being passed from limbo into purgatory.

The move leaves them without one thing the Foxtrot regime did provide, a barrier of sorts, in an island society with a certain amount of violence. Now the Foxtrot prisoners are exposed to it, violence both opportunistic and with deeper roots, leaving them with very little security at all.

You can’t help but marvel at the evil intent of this. By obeying the letter of law as regards the PNG court ruling, it has acted against its spirit, which had a view to the men’s (the prisoners are all male) human rights. It’s of a piece with the sleazy amoralism that has become the standard operational procedure of offshore detention over recent years. Inside the centre, they faced brutal treatment from some guards (some of whom have hard-right, anti-immigrant politics), intra-detainee violence and sexual abuse, bad food, poor medical treatment or none at all, boredom and despair.

[Rundle: the tortured moral philosophy of offshore detention]

Outside, they face a populace for whom the camp is simply an alien colonial imposition, only some of whom need to be hostile for them to be in a very dangerous situation indeed. Those who are refusing to leave Foxtrot, and a secondary camp, “Mike”, they were decanted to, have been threatened with a police raid to throw them out. Cruelty, suffering and absurdity, which were once expected byproducts of the regime, have now become their core intent, as a deterrent to others.

But I wonder if the Turnbull government really understands just how dangerous is the situation it is creating in Manus. Hundreds of men have been plonked down in the middle of PNG society, as if they had been put in Glen Waverley or Parramatta or some such, zones of arrival and departure, and public physical space, which is substantially anonymous.

That is not PNG, and anyone with the knowledge necessary to running such a policy should be aware of this. PNG is a modern state ruling over a set of small and distinct societies that remain held together by kinship and claim on place. The state itself is a post-colonial creation from two colonial possessions stitched together; the writ of nationhood barely runs on its mainland, let alone the outlying islands yoked into it, after hundreds or thousands of years of separate existence.

So quite aside from the resentment any society would feel at having a prison camp put down in its midst, there is the specific question of the Foxtrot inmates being put in a place where cannot simply “be”, without being in relation to other groups. The Foxtrot inmates have been put in a society where mutual obligations and regard can be expressed by either reciprocal exchange, or by expressive violence against a collective entity.

This would explain the reported robbery and assault on an Iranian asylum seeker who was cut with a machete by his attackers in a way that appeared, to witnesses, to be intended to have him bleed to death. There seems no doubt that the account is true, and that the violence went far beyond that required to rob the man. Trying to bleed someone out has pretty well-known connotations in this context.

The situation is exacerbated by the possible imbalance between cash-poor locals and the Foxtrot ex-inhabitants, who may get cash-transfer payments. The gender imbalance created by the men’s presence in the region, relationships between the men and some of the local women, and criminal acts by some of the men themselves, have all created a microcosm of 21st-century imperialism.

To all these triggers, add the grand absurdity of all; they are now owed more than $71 million by the Australian government, as compensation for violating their human rights, by exactly the process that keeps them there, surrounded by very poor people who do not want them.

Kevin Rudd has been tweeting furiously, trying to distance himself from the PNG “solution” as it exists now. But he has no excuse. He’s a smart man, well-educated in the humanities. He knows that PNG is something other than Extremely North Brisbane, that it’s not a place people can simply be “settled” in — that the mix of traditional mores, with the traumatic impact of colonisation, and its revival with this new recolonisation, is a recipe for disaster.

But the mooks in the Turnbull government? This is a bunch of law/commerce grads who think the whole world wants nothing more than to put on a cashmere sweater of a Sunday morning, go to brunch, and come back in the Prius, singing along to No Jacket Required. They know fuck all about anything, and I suspect they genuinely do not understand what they have wrought. I’m not trying to let the Turnbull government off the hook here. Many of them have a racist indifference to anyone with brown skin, and without such disdain, the offshore detention system could not function. But, for political self-interest as much as anything, I presume they do not want the situation to deteriorate further.

[Rundle: refugee suicide by fire our new eternal, nihilistic flame]

Yet the least that the ex-Foxtrot inmates face, rehoused in the town, is continued harassment and petty crime. The worst they face is a spiral of affront taken, and collective payback, which quickly spirals into a very bad situation indeed. Anything is now possible. The situation has been underplayed because, with all the structural and procedural violence the Australian state is applying to the Manus Island prisoners, it seems unfair to focus on the threats arising from PNG people, who have also been used and abused by the process. But of course putting them in that situation is part of the process, a double jeopardy.

It will be October before interview for resettlement in the US, as part of the Turnbull-Obama deal, recommence. And Trump and the Republicans are so opposed to that deal that the chances of it being discontinued are high. In the meantime, the strategy appears to be to allow the ex-Foxtrot inmates to be so terrorised in daily life that they voluntarily return to the countries they left.

Above all, the intent is political, always political. It’s to try and jam up those campaigning for the abolition of offshore detention altogether: well you wanted ’em released, now they are fnarr, fnarr, fnarr. What a triumph — creating a situation so dangerous that detainees are barricading themselves into the prison. Another new low in the moral squalor of offshore detention.

Australia

Jul 25, 2017

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United States officials involved in orchestrating the Australia-US refugee deal have told Crikey that, like the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), they wanted Australia to do more to resettle refugees who had family members already in the country. Unlike the UNHCR, however, they understood this would not extend to people being held on Manus Island and Nauru.  

The two former senior US government officials, who talked to Crikey on the condition of anonymity, also spoke frankly about their concern for the conditions endured by refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru, and depicted this as an important factor in the US’ decision to help relocate them.

In interviews with Crikey, the former officials emphasised that their Australian counterparts made it clear they would not take any of the people currently held on Manus Island or Nauru. Having had this fact impressed upon them, both were surprised that High Commissioner Filippo Grandi yesterday alleged Australia had promised the UNHCR that it would resettle refugees currently held on the two Pacific islands who had “close family ties” in Australia, but that Australia later reneged on the commitment.

Although the US sources did not have knowledge of agreements or conversations between the UNHCR and Australia, both said the general issue of refugee family reunions had been raised as Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and his representatives in Washington DC tried to convince the Americans to accept some of the approximately 2000 people stuck in limbo as a result of Australia’s policies of offshore detention and resettlement.

Like the UNHCR, US officials wanted Australia to do more to help reunite refugees who had been separated from family members already in Australia.

According to one account, the final US-Australia agreement to resettle refugees on Manus Island and Nauru in the US included a commitment from Australia to look at a handful of family reunion cases. This did not relate to people held on Manus Island or Nauru, instead referring to a small number of people stranded in places like Indonesia, outside of the detention network Australia oversees. The second former US official could not confirm whether this commitment made it into the final agreement, but said the US had discussed the issue of family reunions with Australia during the talks.

The UNHCR became involved in the agreement after Australia had approached the US but yesterday alleged Australia had abandoned a commitment that enabled it to do so.

“We agreed to do so on the clear understanding that vulnerable refugees with close family ties in Australia would ultimately be allowed to settle there,” the agency said in a statement. “UNHCR has recently been informed by Australia that it refuses to accept even these refugees, and that they, along with the others on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, have been informed that their only option is to remain where they are or to be transferred to Cambodia or to the United States.”

Quizzed on 7.30 about how exactly the UNHCR had been left with this impression in the first place, assistant high commissioner for protection Volker Turk said the understanding had arisen in meetings with Australian officials, including Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection and Peter Dutton’s office did not respond to questions about whether Australia had agreed to look at the cases of refugees who had family members in Australia as part of the US deal. A spokesperson for the minister instead reiterated: “The position of the Coalition Government has been clear and consistent: those transferred to RPCs will never settle in Australia.”

At the time of publication, the US State Department had not responded to a request for comment.

Details about the conditions of the quietly negotiated Australia-US agreement have only partially emerged since the deal was announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in November last year.

In May, former assistant secretary for state Anne Richard went on the record with the ABC and confirmed Australia’s commitment to take a small number of refugees from Central America was informally linked to the US-Australia resettlement agreement. Richard briefly referred to a number of other factors at play in the deal and said the US had hoped Australia would look to reunite families that had been “split up”.

Shortly after that interview, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection confirmed at Senate estimates they were working on the cases of just 30 individuals in Costa Rica.

Beyond their comments about the specifics of the deal, both US sources who spoke to Crikey portrayed their government — then operating under President Barack Obama and in the process of increasing the number of refugees it accepted — as hesitant to reward Australia for its hardline refugee policies. Reports of poor conditions on Manus Island and Nauru helped persuade them that the best outcome was for the US to resettle the people itself.

Their motivation was, as one source put it, to “get those people out of there”.

A statement from the UN Secretary-General regarding the Turnbull government’s broken promises — both recent and historical — has been prematurely leaked to Crikey via funny man Ben Pobjie. Ben tells us it was leaked by the Sec-Gen himself, which is exciting, though why he chose to leak this information to a comedian and political satirist, we’re not sure. Such a move can surely only damage public trust in the veracity of the information presented. And we wouldn’t want that …

FROM THE OFFICE OF THE SECRETARY-GENERAL

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has regrettably had cause this week to publicly voice our disappointment with the Australian government for its failure to honour an agreement struck over the resettlement of vulnerable refugees with family links in Australia. The United Nations cannot over-emphasise the distress and difficulty that the Australian government has caused by its reneging on this agreement. Unfortunately, the UN’s difficulties with the current administration in Canberra do not end there, and it is with a heavy heart that I here enumerate several other matters on which the Turnbull government has behaved less than satisfactorily towards our organisation.

The latest dispute over refugee resettlement is simply the latest in a series of contretemps in this area, following an agreement struck between Australia and the UN wherein Australia promised to make sincere efforts to resettle all asylum seekers, which was followed by an agreement for Australia to not make sincere efforts to resettle all asylum seekers, but to, at the very least, not imprison them indefinitely in island concentration camps, which was followed by the Australian government’s solemn promise to try, even while operating island concentration camps, to avoid creating a special new body specifically to act out the vivid fascist fantasies of certain members of Cabinet. Every one of these agreements has been violated, and we hold grave fears for the Don’t Give Dutton Absolute Power Memorandum Of Understanding.

The refugee issue is not the only one in which Australia has, in our view, failed to live up to its responsibilities. The UN has for some years been having ongoing discussions with the Australian government with regard to marriage equality, and while we do not seek to dictate policy in this area, there was certainly an understanding reached between us and Prime Minister Turnbull to the effect that his government would at the very least try to look like it knew what it was doing. In fact, I have a letter in front of me from Mr Turnbull explicitly promising to, quote, “avoid the issue devolving into a grotesque farce” — it is a profound disappointment to me that this commitment has been abandoned.

The news, I am afraid, does not get better from here. I had what I thought was a rock-solid pledge from Australia that in the treatment of its First Peoples, legislative and judicial authorities would try to act, if not benevolently, at least with some vestigial sense of shame. That, too, has gone by the wayside. As has the deal signed only recently that promises that the Australian welfare system will meet global standards of what the UN technically terms “working”.

There are a number of other promises the Australian government has made to the UN that have been broken, thus putting at risk the stability of the region, including: the promise to respect the independence of the Human Rights Commission; the promise to respect the independence of the ABC; the promise to keep Barnaby Joyce from speaking in public; the promise to withdraw Australia permanently from Eurovision; and, of course, the promise to adhere to the laws of mathematics. All of these violations pain the United Nations greatly, and we can only hope the Turnbull government will soon begin to take its responsibilities to the world community more seriously.

Federal

Jul 20, 2017

5 comments

On the fourth anniversary of the Rudd government’s decision not to settle asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat, former prime minister Kevin Rudd has said the original agreement with Papua New Guinea to take and detain asylum seekers at the Manus Island offshore detention network was only for one year. However, the original document actually left it open for the years-long detention of men on the island.

On July 19, 2013, shortly after returning to the prime ministership, Rudd signed an agreement with Papua New Guinea that would set in motion the offshore detention regime still in operation today. At the time, Rudd said very clearly that “asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia”.

In an alternative reality where the Rudd government was re-elected, the former prime minister now suggests that the boats would have stopped and asylum seekers would have been processed and resettled in places including Australia.

This week Rudd said he was “a little tired” of taking the blame for this initial 12-month agreement having been extended in perpetuity by the Abbott and Turnbull governments and not implemented as he envisioned.

[Taxpayers spending $1.3m a day to keep asylum seekers in island hellhole]

“These poor folk should have been settled in New Zealand, or Australia, or elsewhere three years ago. The cases could be easily assessed within a 12-month period,” he told ABC RN Breakfast this morning.

The agreement would have been stopped after 12 months if PNG had not been meeting its obligations under the Refugee Convention, Rudd says. 

The agreement in question does state that it will be in place for 12 months from July 2013, but the agreement left it open to be continued beyond the initial 12-month period because it was “subject to review on an annual basis”. Rudd has argued that through that annual review process, the government should have ensured that conditions and treatment on Manus Island satisfied the Refugee Convention and terminated the agreement if they did not, resettling the asylum seekers in Australia and elsewhere. It wasn’t ever made clear at the time of the announcement that Australian resettlement was an option after one year.

Several United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports on Manus Island based on visits to the detention centre since June 2013 have said that the conditions in the detention centre do not meet international standards for the treatment of asylum seekers.

As of the end of May this year, there are still 370 people (including 48 women and 43 children) in the Nauru detention centre, and 816 men in the Manus Island detention centre. As of May, 722 men on Manus Island have been found to be refugees, with all but 27 still in PNG (15 were listed by the department as no longer being in PNG, while 12 were in Australia for medical treatment). The government said 233 men had failed in their applications for asylum, and 32 voluntarily returned to their country of origin, while six were involuntarily returned to their country of origin.

[Lying dud Dutton and his lying dud department]

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection told a Senate estimates committee this month that the total cost of running the two offshore detention centres since 2012 has been $4.89 billion.

There are 21 asylum seekers currently living in the community in PNG, mostly from Iran or Bangladesh. The government is aiming to get the remaining asylum seekers off Manus to close the facility in October as part of the resettlement agreement with the United States. The deal has been delayed until October because the United States has reached its cap on accepting refugees for the year, and this will not reset until after September.

In a Human Rights Law Centre report this week marking the fourth anniversary of Rudd’s PNG policy, several asylum seekers have told their harrowing tales of being locked up in offshore detention for the past four years. Naseem, an asylum seeker from Pakistan who has been in Manus since 2013, compared his treatment to that faced under the Taliban:

“From the beginning, they have tried to break us. When the Taliban tell you they will kill you — you know you are going to die. But here in this centre, you just wait with no hope, and get told to go back home.”