Moral cowardice, moral courage and 1296 human beings in offshore detention

A few years ago I went to a workshop where we were invited to participate in a guided imagination exercise in which we imagined ourselves inside a bubble floating through time seeing what our lives would be like in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. I engaged in that exercise this week, not imagining my own life in 5, 10, 20 years but imagining what life would be like for the 1296 people held in immigration detention on Nauru or Manus Island. The answer it would seem is that their lives will be exactly the same as they are now, for our government has absolutely no credible plan to resolve their situation.

The Guardian newspaper has released documents in the past two weeks that remind us again just how appalling conditions are in the detention centres. Those being held in these appalling conditions have committed no crime. They are rather, the innocent victims of governments that have committed horrendous crimes against them. The international convention to which we are a signatory permits them to seek asylum in Australia or any other country for that matter. Yet here they are locked up in conditions that we wouldn’t accept for prisons in our own country and with no idea when they might be released. And they have no idea because the government has no idea.

It’s not simply ineptitude on the part of the federal government. New Zealand offered to take 150 of the detainees but their offer was rejected because our government deemed it unacceptable to send these refugees to a place where they would be treated well. On the government’s logic this might mean that other refugees would be encouraged to take the journey to Australia. So it seems the only answer the government has for the release of those in offshore detention is to send them to places where their rights will be abused, where they will find themselves marginalised and living in extreme difficulty. Places like Cambodia. That’s it. That’s our government’s plan.

The government claims that this is the price we have to pay to prevent people drowning at sea. That’s a lie. What they should really say this is the price we have to pay in order to be free of increased flows of asylum seekers to our shores. It’s easy to prevent deaths at sea if you accept that will mean more people will want to find refuge in Australia. People only get on leaky boats because they have no other option. So we can give them an option. Assess their claims and then fly them to Australia. And while we’re in the process work towards a regional framework so that there is a sharing of the burden. Sure, it would be demanding and would almost certainly see many more people coming to our shores, but that’s the price you have to pay to be a morally courageous member of the international community.

Most Australians I know are decent people but we cannot hide behind that to somehow pretend that the policy we have on offshore detention is decent. It is not. It is a flagrant abuse of human beings that transgresses everything liberal democracies stand for. I just wonder how long it will be before we have either forgotten those in offshore detention or are so scandalised by it that we demand change. Because one thing is for sure. The current mob in power have absolutely no plan to resolve this outrage. It’s up to us to ensure that in 10 years time things don’t remain as they are.

What’s happening with the Syrian refugees Australia agreed to take?

In September last year the federal government committed to taking a once off tranche of 12,000 refugees from Syria in addition to the 13,750 people who would be granted humanitarian visas each year. So what’s been happening? I wrote to the Department and they replied informing me that the government had set itself a timeframe of delivering all 12,000 places within two years (which I assume means by September 2017) and is on progress to reach that goal.

1. Over 6000 people have been interviewed and assessed as meeting threshold requirements for a Visa and are awaiting the outcomes of health, character and/or security checks;
2. as at July 15 2016 over 4300 people have been granted visas towards the 12,000 places. Of these 1002 have already settled in Australia;

It’s worth noting that alongside this the government is increasing the size of the regular humanitarian program to 16,250 places in 2017-18 and 18,750 places in 2018-19.

How do the parties compare? Asylum seeker and refugee policy

The world faces a refugee crisis. 20 million people are refugees and another 2 million are seeking asylum. There are three possible solutions for those who are refugees: that they returned home when it becomes safe to do so; that they settle down and build a new life in the country to which they first fled; that they resettle in a third country such as Australia. At present less than 2% are able to return home each year, less than 2% are able to settle down in the country to which they have fled, and less than 1% are accepted for resettlement in third countries such as Australia. This leaves 95% of the world refugees living without any certainty about their future and usually in extremely difficult second circumstances.

The policy challenge centres on three issues.

How many refugees will Australia settle?
We currently accept 13,750 people pa under our humanitarian program, the bulk of whom  are refugees. How many should we accept? If we based our “fair share” on our wealth, as a nation with 2.34% of global GDP we would accept 2.34% of the worlds asylum seekers and refugees, which would be a little over 500,000. This does not mean we would accept 500,000 per annum, but that of the existing 22 million people in need of refuge we would take 500,000, presumably staggered over a number of years.

The Coalition has committed to increasing our humanitarian intake to 18,750 by 2018/19,  the ALP  to increasing the humanitarian intake to 27,000 by 2025, and the Greens to an increase to 50,000 per annum.

How will we handle the movement of refugees in our region?
In the absence of clear pathways by which they might find refuge and the opportunity to build a new life many refugees resort to “irregular migration pathways”. These are frequently dangerous.  It is incumbent upon the international community to help refugees find safe pathways to refuge. The Coalition is committed to accepting refugees from overseas but has announced no plans to   create pathways  for refugees in our region. The ALP and the Greens  are proposing substantial efforts to create a regional framework by which refugees to our region are processed quickly in the countries to which they have fled  (such as Malaysia and Indonesia), that once found to be refugees they are offered settlement opportunities in countries in our region, and that they be treated with decency and humanity while they are waiting for settlement. Both the ALP and the Greens propose that a large number of the increased places they will make available will go to refugees in our region.

What will we do about offshore detention?
It is the policy of the government that any refugee  or asylum seeker who arrives by irregular means, that is travelling to Australia without a visa of some kind,  will be detained indefinitely in an offshore detention centre and will never be accepted for settlement in Australia. Conditions in the detention centres are  harsh and the absence of any indication of when a durable solution may be found creates despair among those detained. The  Coalition is proposing no change to its current policy. The ALP  will  continue  offshore detention and maintain the principle that no refugee arriving by irregular means will be settled in Australia, but differs from the Coalition in arguing that  detention must not be indefinite, requiring urgent efforts to find third countries  to resettle those  in offshore detention who are found to be refugees. The ALP also proposes an independent body to oversee conditions in the centres.  The Greens are proposing to shut the centres down, relying on their increased  humanitarian program and a regional framework to ensure people are not forced  to make dangerous journeys to Australia.

Humanitarian Intake
Australia currently receives 13,750 refugees or people in refugee like situations per year
Increase from 13,700 to 18,750 by 2018/19Increase to 27,000 by 2025Increase to 50,000, including 10,000 skilled refugees
Offshore Detention Centres
Australia currently sends all unauthorised maritime arrivals to detention on Nauru and will never admit them to Australia
Continue current policy.Continue offshore detention but find resettlement in other countries for those found to be refugees.
Establish an independent monitor of conditions in offshore centres.
Release all children from offshore detention
Shut offshore detention centres, saving $2.9 billion over forward estimates. Immediately release all children and their families
Boat turnbacks
The Australian navy intercepts boats seeking to transport asylum seekers to Australia, and where it is safe to do so, sends them back to where they originated from
Continue current policyContinue current policyDiscontinue boat turnbacks
Regional approach
A regional approach would see countries of our region working together to process and settle refugees
No stated policyCommitted to developing a regional approach. The bulk of the 27,000 refugees received under the humanitarian program to be refugees from our region.Devote $500 million over four years to enable people to be processed where they are (eg Indonesia & Malaysia) and be treated decently while they wait
Asylum Seekers currently in Australia
Around 30,000 asylum seekers who arrived in Australia prior to 2013 are on bridging visas. Those found to be refugees will be eligible only for a temporary protection visa, which denies them the opportunity for permanent residency and does not allow their family to be brought to Australia.
Continue current policyAbolish TPVs and grant refugees permanent residencyAbolish TPVs and grant refugees permanent residency
OtherIncrease support to UNHCR to $450 million over three yearsEstablish a royal commission into children in detention.
Abolish Australian Border Force and return functions to the Dept of Immigration

Stopping the Boats Has Not Stopped the Deaths. Where’s the evidence?

In a number of posts on this site I have made the claim that stopping the boats has not stopped the deaths at sea. But is there a sound basis for claiming this? I believe there is.

1. Stopping the boats has not reduced the demand for protection

At present there are 20 million refugees in the world and 2 million asylum seekers. Having fled their homelands they commonly live in great uncertainty and difficulty in societies that are usually lower or middle income (more than 8 in 10 refugees are hosted by developing nations) and either lack the capacity to provide them with the care they need or are unwilling to do so.

They need one of three possible futures to open up for them:
• The opportunity to return home if and when it becomes safe to do so;
• the opportunity to settle in the country to which they have fled build a new life there;
• the opportunity to settle in a third country such as Australia

In any given year data from the UN (see UNHCR’s annual global reports) shows that around 4% of refugees will be able to avail themselves of one of these opportunities. That leaves 96% of the world’s refugees and asylum seekers languishing in deplorable circumstances with no future before them. In the absence of solutions via “regular” migration routes desperation drives some refugees to seek a future via “irregular” migration.

In shutting off access to Australia via “irregular” migration Australia has done nothing to dampen the demand for safety. We have simply reduced the supply of available positions. It is highly likely that those who would have made their way to Australia will now seek out another destination. The rising number of asylum seekers across the world strongly suggests that this is the case.

2. Other irregular migration routes are dangerous

But are the routes to other nations as dangerous as the route to Australia? The answer to that will clearly depend upon the alternate destination that is sought. It is likely that many of those who might have come to Australia from places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, are now amongst the vast numbers seeking to cross the Mediterranean and find refuge in Europe. Data is notoriously difficult to come by, but what data I have been able to access suggests that the journey across the Mediterranean poses a risk level fairly similar to that of the journey from Indonesia to Australia.

Between 2011 and 2014 358,800 people are estimated to have made the journey across the Mediterranean by boat. Over the course of this period it is estimated that 6000,or 1.7%, lost their lives making that journey. (Data supplied by the UNHCR as reported by Over the same period 42,516 people made the journey by boat to Australia and there were an estimated 869 deaths, which represents 2.0% of those who make the journey (data on arrival numbers supplied by the Australian Parliament House library service and on deaths by the Australian Border Deaths database).

Breathtaking mountains and despairing beyonds. On becoming human

The view is spectacular. Mountains and valleys that extend seemingly without end. The blue haze that gives the mountains their name. Sunlight striking a cliff-face. The rich green foliage of densely packed Australian bush. The vibrant red flower of a Waratah that has bloomed early. The song of birds in the air.

It is incredibly beautiful. It inspires awe and wonder. I feel satisfied and at peace.

Then I read the news. Another refugee on Nauru has set themself on fire. This time a woman. Her name is Hadon. She is around 21 years old. Those who know her say she is kind and shy.

The Nauruan government releases statements that decry the base political tactic of self-immolation. It is heartless.

People only set themselves on fire when they have become broken, when they have nothing left but despair and anger. What have we done that a 21 year old woman is driven to this? She should be anticipating a future sitting in a B&B looking out over breathtaking vistas, finding the joy and wonder of life. Instead she lies in a hospital bed covered in burns.

One part of me wants to put the paper down, close the pages and pretend that the world is all mountains extending to the horizon. But the truth is that beyond those mountains lies a young woman in a world of pain. Surely we must be attentive to both. Forget the wonder and we become cynical. Forget the woundedness and we descend into narcissism. Remember both and we become human.

The dog whistling has begun and it is ugly

So the dog whistling has begun. The Guardian reported both Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton claiming that we must keep asylum seekers out of Australia as a matter of national security. That they both use the same language makes it clear that this is a calculated line that they are spinning in the lead up to the next election.

What a disgraceful and despicable line it is. There is absolutely no case to be made that people fleeing persecution represent a threat to our national security. Australia has had a number of terrorist attacks carried out since the 1970s and a number of plots foiled. Almost all those committing offences have been people who were born in Australia or arrived here as migrants not refugees. To the best of our knowledge two or three former refugees have been involved, but they arrived here as children and were radicalised while here (see The inference in the Prime Minister’s comments is that people arriving by boat are radicalised and ready to commit terror. It simply is not true. In most cases these are people fleeing terror.

Alongside these scurrilous comments, the Prime Minister and Peter Dutton reiterated their insistence that none of the refugees on Manus Island would be settled in Australia. We also have turned down an offer from New Zealand to take 150 refugees, on the grounds of this would only encourage people smugglers to get back into business. It seems that keeping people smugglers out of business is a higher priority for us than providing protection to people who are desperately in need of it.

But perhaps the people smuggling line is a case of dog whistling too, for there is an easy way to put them out of business and to welcome asylum seekers to our shores: develop a decent regional framework for the processing and settling of refugees that sees their countries of our region cooperating to make sure that those who come to our region in need of protection will find it. Just about everybody who works in the field recognises that this is what is required, yet our government appears to make no effort towards it. It all smells of the most base form of politics our country has seen

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