This week marks the fourth anniversary of the decision by the Rudd-Gillard government to detain unauthorised asylum seekers in offshore detention centres and never permit them entry to our county.
Today the system is on the verge of collapse, with the Manus centre declared illegal by the PNG Supreme Court, the government of Nauru refusing to keep people detained, and the deal with the US to resettle those on Manus and Nauru looking vey shaky.
So what have we learned?
The policy has been horrendously expensive.
At their peak, the Manus and Nauru detention centres, held 2450 detainees (1).The cost of running the centres for the four years has been just on $5 billion (2). This means we have spent a staggering $500,000+ per year per detainee in offshore detention! That is 10 times the cost of processing asylum seekers and then settling those found to be refugees. For the same spend we could have welcomed an additional 25,000 refugees per year for the last four years. That is, we could have afforded the cost of settling every refugee who arrived by boat and had a lazy billion or two left over.
The policy has been extremely damaging.
Numerous reports have found that refugees in the Manus and Nauru facilities are subject to increased levels of violence, depression, and psychological trauma. Greg Lake, who was the Director of Offshore Processing from August 2012 until he resigned in April 2013, described the core strategy of the offshore detention approach as robbing refugees of hope (3) To deter people from seeking asylum in Australia it was necessary to make things so bad it was preferable to stay in places of extreme danger rather than come to Australia. And the way this was achieved was by psychologically breaking refugees.
The government had done nothing to create a viable long term solution.
The offshore detention policy was designed to prevent growing flows of asylum seekers arriving in Australia without authorisation. The moral imperative behind this was the prevention of deaths at sea. This is, in my view, an honourable goal, even if the method selected to do so was not. No one wants to see people desperately fleeing persecution drowning in their quest for freedom.
Yet while the Gillard-Rudd and Abbot-Turnbull governments implemented the recommendation of the Expert Panel for offshore detention, no government has taken up the Panel’s other key recommendation that a regional framework be developed that provides clear pathways for asylum seeker in our region to find protection.
Ir seems that we’re content with preventing asylum seekers arriving on our shores, which means they become someone else’s problem.
Australia’s policy has undermined the global protection system.
The Refugee Convention is built on a simple supposition – that when people flee persecution the signatories to the Convention will welcome them and provide them with protection. Yet if other nations adopted the same approach as Australia there would be nowhere for refugees to flee to.
Contrived debate on asylum seekers arriving by boat has unleashed our “lesser angels”
Politicians and shock jocks have demonised asylum seekers to score cheap political and ratings points. This has been both a sign of and a contributor to a debasing of our public life that has legitimised fear and hatred of refugees and muslims.
We all share in the shame
Australians like to think of ourselves as good and generous people. The truth is that In a variety of ways we are good and generous, but at the same time there are areas of our life in which we are absolute bastards. Our attitudes toward and treatment of asylum seekers arriving by boat is an area in which we are at our worst. We all either know that we are bullying and destroying innocent people or have chosen not to know. With the exception of a small group, it is a price we are willing to pay to assuage baseless fears.
We can be so much better than this.
The no resettlement policy combined with boat turn-backs has succeeded in stemming the flow of unauthorised asylum seekers to Australia. It has done nothing to ensure that asylum seekers in our region find protection, but has made their situation worse by shutting off one protection option.
We can do better than this. Tomorrow the movie Dunkirk is released, which commemorates the way the British community banded together to rescue soldiers surrounded by the German army. It reminds me that when faced with humanitarian crises, human beings can be magnificent in finding solutions.
With the right leadership Australia could reshape its refugee framework and lead the workload towards a better approach. Sadly, I don’t think we’re likely to see it from our current Prime Minister.
( hi1) http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1617/Quick_Guides/Offshore
(2) senate estimes. Reported in the Guardian 18/7/2017