I have been celebrating the news that the Federal Government is bringing all refugee children on Nauru to Australia for medical treatment. Yet there remain disturbing, unanswered questions.
Why not bring them all now?
The mental health crisis among child detainees is well-documented. So why are we waiting until Christmas to bring all of them to Australia? At the same time the government announced it would bring all remaining children to Australia by Christmas it was in the courts challenging the transfer of one of the children, claiming her medical condition was not severe enough to justify treatment in Australia.
Why haven’t all the children been transferred immediately?
What will happen to these children and their families after treatment?
The government has not committed to resettling these children and their families in Australia. Indeed, quite the opposite. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has insisted that Australia’s policy is unchanged – children and their families who are not considered refugees will be returned to their country of origin, while those recognised as refugees will not be resettled in Australia. This leaves a few possibilities:
- they will be returned to Nauru;
- they will be detained in a centre located in Australia;
- they will be resettled in a third country;
- they will be quietly settled in Australia.
Given the public mood I cannot see how the government could entertain either of the first two options. To return children to Nauru or to indefinite detention in Australia would return them to the very conditions that contributed to their psychological trauma. This would surely meet with outrage and disgust.
New Zealand has offered to settle 150 refugees per year, but the Government is unwilling to take it up without parliament passing a bill that ban any of the refugees accepted by NZ from ever setting foot in Australia. To date the ALP, the Greens and the crossbench have proven unwilling to pass the government’s bill without some modifications and the Government have been unwilling to negotiate.
At the same time it is difficult to imagine the government quietly resettling the children and their families in Australia. They have been brutally resolute that no refugee from Manus or Nauru will be settled here, and given the public interest, I can’t imagine how they could be resettled quietly.
The way forward is very unclear. One thing is certain. It is uncertainty and loss of hope that has driven the mental health crisis on Nauru, Continued uncertainty will only exacerbate it.
What will happen to the refugees who remain on Manus and Nauru?
It’s not only children, but every refugee that is at risk on Manus and Nauru. When the offshore detention regime was introduced it was intended to be temporary. The inability of the Government to find suitable third countries for resettlement means the situation of refugees on Manus and Nauru has become long-term.
Certainly, the circumstances have changed – the detention centres are now open, with refugees able to move among the general population. This is however cold comfort, for Nauru is such a small island nation that open or not refugees are still in effect detained, while on Manus Island refugees who move in the public arena are regularly attacked.
What will happen if boats arrive in the future?
The offshore detention approach has been a human rights and humanitarian disaster. It ranks as one of the most disgraceful acts of the Australian people. We set up a system designed to psychologically destroy people who, persecuted in their home countries, came to us seeking our help. We justified this on the basis that it would help prevent another humanitarian disaster – asylum seekers drowning at sea. It was an immoral bargain from the outset, for there were other ways to prevent deaths at sea that didn’t trip innocent people of their dignity and their wellbeing.
The Coalition proposes to keep the system in place for any asylum seekers who might board a boat and make their way to Australia in future. Will we tolerate this happening all over again?
The ALP proposes to keep the offshore detention regime going but to work towards regional processing agreements and third country resettlement options that will see Australia take more refugees from the region and will ensure detention offshore is temporary. Will they be able to achieve this?
Like many others, my heart skipped a beat this week when I heard that three Coalition MPs had broken ranks on offshore detention and were calling for children and their families detained on Nauru to be brought to Australia.
The situation on Nauru is heartbreaking. Medicins Sans Frontieres, whose staff were very recently expelled from Nauru, describe the situation of asylum seekers and refugees on the island as “beyond desperate”.
As corroborated by MSF medical analysis, refugee patients exist in a vicious cycle of deep despair with many having lost the will to live. Among them, at least 78 patients seen by MSF had suicidal ideations and/or engaged in self-harm or suicidal acts. Children as young as nine have told MSF staff that they would rather die than live in a state of hopelessness on Nauru. Among the most severely ill patients are those separated from their immediate family as a result of Australia’s immigration policy.https://www.msf.org.au/article/statements-opinion/msf-calls-immediate-evacuation-all-asylum-seekers-and-refugees-nauru
None of this comes as a surprise. Numerous organisations have found similar things. The Nauru papers documented it. Greg Lake, who was Director of Regional Processing at the time the Nauru and Manus centres were set up and would later become Director of the Nauru facility, explained the logic of deterrence.
Deterrence is all about constructing an environment that’s worse than the thing people are fleeing from. So you have to make the situation in detention somehow worse than Syria under ISIS. And if you put it in that context, we can’t kill people, but the next best thing you can do is take away people’s hope and dignity. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKwH91h63uY
When he selected who would be sent to the offshore centres, Greg Lake recalls that
My instructions (from the Minister for Immigration’s office) were to find families with children as young as possible (because we had to send a message to people smugglers that children, even young children, weren’t exempt). We couldn’t transfer children under seven, as they couldn’t be inoculated against Japanese Encephalitis or Malaria, so I had to choose children who looked young, to send a message to people smugglers.https://www.eternitynews.com.au/archive/bodybags-weve-run/
Both major political parties argue that the offshore regime is necessary, that the people smuggling syndicates will rapidly redeploy the moment Australia signals it will welcome asylum seekers who arrive by boat. This is why the Prime Minister has opened the door to getting children and their families off Nauru but: 1) will not bring them to Australia; and 2) will not take up New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 refugees until Parliament agrees to pass a bill making it impossible for those who resettle inNew Zealand to ever come to Australia.
The ALP argue that the offshore centres were never intended to be places of indefinite detention, and that the government has failed in its key obligation to find other countries to resettle the refugees on Manus and Nauru (see https://www.alp.org.au/asylumseekers).
Yet suppose the government does find third party countries for all those on Manus and Nauru. Would that not encourage the people smugglers to start up again? They mightn’t be able to promise entry to Australia, but could easily argue that if you make your way to Australia you will end up in the USA, or New Zealand, or somewhere similar.
We need to get those children and their families off Nauru. No outcome can justify the mental disintegration of innocent human beings. We have to accept that the people-smuggling trade may well recommence if we bring those refugees to Australia. And we have to “stop the boats” not by making the lives of asylum seekers a living hell, but by creating a regional and global system that provides a clear and timely path by which people fleeing violence can settle in a country where they can rebuild their lives.
Today’s most important news is going to be overshadowed by the exposure of cheating in the Australian cricket team. I love my cricket and I am extraordinarily disappointed that our team has been caught cheating. Like people all over the country I will follow the story and share my outrage with friends and colleagues,
But I don’t want to miss the most important news story for the day: the federal government is about to cut Social Security payments snd support services to 15,000 asylum seekers living in Australia. The vast majority of these people arrived in Australia over five years ago and are still waiting for their claim for refugee status to be assessed. Their lives are held in limbo, citizens of nowhere, unable to put down roots because they don’t know whether they’ll be sent back to the country whose persecution they have fled. History suggests that the vast majority will be found to be refugees. They are men, women and children who have fled unimaginable violence and terror and cast themselves upon Australia’s mercy.
Discussions of asylum seekers in Australia have always proven problematic in the past, unleashing debates about whether our policy settings were only attracting more people and leading to more deaths at sea. This is not in play here. Australia’s policy of turning back boats is very clear and what happens to these people living in Australia will make no difference to that.
We are left only with the simple reality of men, women and children in need of our care and protection. They don’t have families to turn to for assistance. They have us.
A press release from the Refugee Council says
The government is planning to make cuts to the Status Resolution Support Service (SRSS) program that provides a basic living allowance (typically 89% of Newstart allowance, equating to just $247 per week), casework support, assistance in finding housing, and access to torture and trauma counselling. People waiting for a decision about their claim for protection receive these supports.
An alliance of close to 100 civil society organisations, including the Refugee Council of Australia and Australian Council of Social Service, is calling on the government to urgently reverse their position to cut income support for people seeking asylum from 1 April 2018.
I find it incomprehensible that we would deny access to torture and trauma counselling to people who have been through extreme trauma; that we would consider cutting back a basic living allowance that already has people living below the poverty line; that we would strip away from parents the ability to provide the most basic care to the children.
The cheating by the Australian cricket team disappoints me. This disgusts me.
I’ll be contacting my representative in Federal Parliament today to ask him to take action on this.
You can learn more here
The flight of refugees from Burma highlights just how inhumane our refugee policy has become. More than 647,000 Rohingya have fled Burma since the end of August last year, making it the largest refugee crisis of our region and one of the largest in the world.
The UNHCR web page on the Rohingya crisis says
The situation remains precarious as refugees continue to arrive every day. Many refugees tell horrific stories of extreme violence, several showing wounds and trauma inflicted before their flight. As more refugees arrive every day there is an acute need for emergency shelters, blankets and other forms of aid. To lessen the risk of waterborne and airborne diseases, refugees and host communities urgently need more clean water, health care and other supplies. Pregnant women, young children and the elderly are especially vulnerable
The Rohingya have been described as the most unwanted people on earth. Boats and rafts filled with Rohingya have been pushed out to sea by governments of nations around Burma. Almost all now flee to Bangladesh where there are historic ties.
The sheer scale of people leaving makes it an emergency, and it is one that is firmly planted in Australia’s backyard. Back in the days before we decided to exempt ourselves from the most fundamental provision of the Refugee Convention, that people should be free to seek asylum wherever they can, we might have expected boats with Rohingya to have made their way to Australia. It would have generated great angst but it also would have meant Australia would have provided them with protection. Now that we have turned our back on asylum seekers Bangladesh is shouldering the burden on its own.
When our government decided to stop the boats from coming it left us with a moral obligation to make sure that we used our resettlement program to ensure Australia was bearing its fair share of the global burden of protection. Yet the number of people who come to Australia via our special humanitarian program is a mere 16500 per year. The figure needs to be at least double that before we can say that we are doing our fair share.
And surely when there is a crisis of the scale of the Rohingya fleeing Burma there is a need to implement additional extraordinary measures, such as the response we made to the Syria crisis where we took 12,000 refugees over and above the regular humanitarian intake. This is even more the case given the Rohingya crisis is occurring in our own part of the world.
Australia receives around 2000 Burmese refugees and special humanitarian entrants each year, but it’s simply not enough. I have no objection to the Minister for Home affairs expressing concern for white South African farmers. I just wish the same concern would be afforded the victims of the greatest refugee crisis of our region..
This is a prayer I wrote to use in my church. Feel free to use it in yours.
We come to you who once was a refugee,
To plead the cause of those who today are refugees.
We come to you as the One who hears the cry of the poor & oppressed,
And call you to hear the cry of the Rohingya of Myanmar
And the despairing on Manus Island.
We pray for the Rohingya, fleeing military violence in Myanmar.
Our hearts ache for every girl who is raped,
Every woman who is beaten,
Every man who is shot.
Every child whose tender heart is filled with terror.
Our Peacemaker, we pray for a pathway for peace in Myanmar.
May the flicker of hope that the world felt with the release and election of Aung San Suu Kyi
Fan into a flame of justice.
Strengthen those who would see justice for Myanmar’s ethnic minorities,
And tear down from power those who refuse to turn their hearts and minds to justice.
Our Refuge, we pray for refuge for the Rohingya who have fled.
Open the hearts and minds of the Bangladeshi government toward them,
That they might grant the Rohingya who have sought their aid
spaces that are safe and resources that are sufficient for their time of exile.
Lord Jesus, our minds turn to the refugees on Manus Island,
Their hopes for safety from persecution and violence
in their home countries are shattered.
And they now live with fear of violence on Manus.
In the depths of their despair,
May they find a flicker of hope.
In the grip of their fear,
May they find Papuans who will be their shelter.
Forgive us for being deaf to their cries.
They came to Australia seeking our help
And our solution has turned out to be their nightmare.
Rouse our government to action,
And our nation to mercy.
Fill our hearts with a righteous anger,
that leaves us restless until every refugee now on Manus is safe.
They have been described as “the most persecuted people on earth” and they are now the subjects of the world’s fastest-growing humanitarian crisis.
The Rohingya are a stateless ethnic minority who live in the Rakhine, an area on the western side of Myanmar. They are the people no-one wants. Although the Rohingya have been present in Myanmar since the 12th century, the government of Myanmar does not recognise them. It argues that the Rohingya were part of the waves of migration from India when both Myanmar and India were under British colonial rule, that this migration was illegal, and that consequently the Rohingya are illegally present foreigners. This has seen their movements restricted, their access to government services denied, their rights under the law unrecognised, and their people brutalised by the military.
In August the military began reprisals after a Rohingya resistance group attacked a police station. Journalists are not permitted to enter the Rakhine, so there is no independent reporting of what occurred. What we do know is that the reprisals were so severe that in the space of just 3 months 615,000 of the million or so Rohingya living in Myanmar have fled. Most have made their way to Bangladesh, trekking through the jungle for days or taking a perilous journey across the Bay of Bengal on a flimsy raft. They arrive with harrowing stories of military personnel burning their houses to the ground, gang-raping girls and women, and shooting people.
The Rohingya who arrive in Bangladesh are mostly living in large makeshift settlements. Infrastructure is grossly inadequate, services are almost non-existent and the Bangladeshi government has made it clear that they will offer only temporary respite. They expect the Rohingya to return to Myanmar.
The only upside to this tragedy is that world attention is being focussed on the Rohingya. Let us hope and pray that change will come..You can also make a donation to one of the aid agencies working to provide support to the Rohingya refugees. I recommend Baptist World Aid Australia.