ALP NATIONAL CONFERENCE - REFUGEE POLICY
I was one of a small group of Labor for Refugees members who attended the ALP National Conference in Adelaide from 16th to 18th December. There were some significant changes announced regarding refugee policy which build on previous changes made through the Draft Platform Consultation process. Labor now has refugee policies which are better than they have been for some years and they will improve the lives of thousands of people. The result is not everything we aimed for but is certainly more than we thought possible some months ago.
You may have seen some or all of these in the media over recent days but here is a summary:
- $500 million over the next five years to support the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to improve orderly regional processing and resettlement in the region
- Negotiate an agreement with New Zealand to resettle refugees there, in a deal similar to the one secured with the United States, and approach other countries as well
- Additional places in the form of Community Sponsorship increasing to 5,000 per year over and above the government sponsored places
- Adopt the crossbench’s policy to move asylum seekers requiring medical attention off Nauru and Manus Island.
- Appoint a special envoy for refugee and asylum seeker issues to advance Australia’s interests on refugee issues within the region
- People seeking asylum will have “means-tested access to funded migration assistance, and to appropriate social services, including income, crisis housing, healthcare, mental health, community, education and English as a second language support during the assessment of the claim for protection”
Ged Kearney MP for Cooper, moved the following motion which delegates passed:
“Labor recognises that successive Coalition Governments have failed to negotiate viable, timely and durable third-country arrangements. This has left refugees and asylum seekers including children languishing in indefinite detention.
This conference condemns the failure of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government to properly manage off-shore processing and regional resettlement adequately and for playing with the lives of vulnerable people.
This conference calls on the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government to immediately accept New Zealand’s offer to resettle refugees by negotiating an agreement on similar terms and conditions as the United States Arrangement.
If elected, Labor will prioritise the resettlement of all eligible refugees currently on Manus and Nauru to the United States, New Zealand and other third countries.”
Ged’s speech is posted on our Facebook page – Labor for Refugees Victoria - and I highly recommend watching it. Ged is certainly a champion for refugees.
Labor for Refugees national group made submissions to the National Policy Forum and proposed many changes which are included in the Platform:
- Family reunion
- Need for a bipartisan approach
- Recognition of the need to address the reasons for people to take a boat journey
- Inclusion of Safe Haven Enterprise Visas to be abolished and holders transitioned to permanent protection. This is extremely significant and will affect at least 8,000 people currently living in Australia.
- Inclusion of community groups contribution to settlement
- Recognition of the role of Comcare
- Recognition of the role of state child protection authorities.
There have been further changes which certainly fit with our philosophy:
- Strengthened processes relating to LGBTI people seeking asylum
- Time limit on detention
- Working with UNHCR and Indonesia to work through backlog of claims
- Protection for whistle-blowers
All of these add to the positive aspects of existing ALP Platform:
- Increased intake to 27,000 a year
- Independent oversight of detention network
- Independent children’s advocate
- Mandatory reporting of child abuse in detention
- Reinstate the Refugee Review Tribunal
- Abolish TPVs and holders to be transitioned to permanent protection. This affects around 6,000 people currently living in Australia.
- Abolish the so-called Fast Track Process. This affects about 11,000 people currently living in Australia still waiting on decisions.
Labor for Refugees Victoria
20 December 2018
UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations Security Council reached a surprisingly swift consensus Wednesday on its choice for the next secretary general of the United Nations: António Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal.
Mr. Guterres, 67, who ran the United Nations refugee agency for 10 years, had been the clear front-runner for the last several months. That a deeply divided Security Council rallied around him was a clear signal that Russia and the West saw him as someone they could work with.
Thirteen candidates, including a record seven women, had vied for the job; two had dropped out.
“We have a clear favorite, and his name is António Guterres,” said Vitaly I. Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, who is presiding over the Security Council this month.
Mr. Churkin made the announcement outside the Council’s chamber on Wednesday, flanked by his American counterpart, Samantha Power, in an unusual display of cooperation. The envoys of all the other members of the Council were also there, looking as if they, too, were surprised by their unity.
“In the end, there was a candidate whose experience, vision and versatility across a range of areas proved compelling, and it was remarkably uncontentious, uncontroversial,” Ms. Power said. “And I think it speaks to the fact that each of us represents our nation and each of us know how fundamentally important this position is in terms of the welfare of our own citizens.
“Every day we go into Security Council, we aspire for the kind of unity we saw today,” she added. “And on a crisis with carnage as horrific as that in Syria, the urgency of achieving that unity is no secret to anyone. And it’s not something we’ve achieved up to this point.”
Mr. Guterres will face a formal Council vote on Thursday morning and will then have his name submitted to the 193-member General Assembly for approval, which will most likely happen next week. If elected, he will succeed the current secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, whose second five-year term expires at the end of this year. The United Nations is faltering in carrying out its chief mandate, to stop the scourge of war, and is confronting a widening rift between Russia and the West.
Mr. Guterres was in Portugal when the announcement was made. The Portuguese mission to the United Nations said he would comment publicly only after Thursday’s formal vote.
The choice of Mr. Guterres dashed the hopes of many diplomats and civil-society activists that the United Nations would be led by a woman for the first time in its 71-year history.
One of the women contending for the job, Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica, said on Twitter that the results were bittersweet: “Bitter: not a woman. Sweet: by far the best man in the race. Congrats Antonio Guterres!”
Mr. Guterres has promised gender parity in senior posts within the organization, but beyond that, what he will do to advance the rights of women through the work of the United Nations remains to be seen.
Antonia Kirkland, program manager for Equality Now, an advocacy group, said that while it was “disappointing” that a man would run the body again, “we are at least hopeful that he will continue the feminist agenda, including, first of all, ensuring gender parity among his staff at the Secretariat, and also prioritizing violence and discrimination against women as a pivotal issue.”
Trained as a theoretical physicist, Mr. Guterres is a veteran politician and a member of his country’s Socialist Party. His first major diplomatic test will be to rally Russia and whoever wins the presidency in the United States to address the carnage in Syria. He will also face a range of thorny conflicts elsewhere, from South Sudan to Yemen, and nuclear brinkmanship in North Korea. He will have to repair the United Nations’ reputation for peacekeeping, sullied by repeated accusations of sexual abuse, and show that the secretary general’s office can stand up to political pressure from rich and powerful countries.
Michael W. Doyle, a former United Nations official who is now a Columbia University professor, said that as the high commissioner for refugees, Mr. Guterres had demonstrated both charisma and an ability to maneuver. “In the agency, he was known as someone who could sit down and hammer out agreements under difficult circumstances,” he said. “Moscow has to understand that.”
Mr. Guterres’s first order of business will be to fill plum posts, and there, he is likely to face bare-knuckles lobbying by the world powers. Russia had insisted that it was an Eastern European’s turn to be secretary general, so it remains to be seen how much it will push for its favored diplomats for key positions, including deputy secretary general and head of the United Nations’ political affairs division.
The way the Council selects the world’s top civil servant has long been opaque, though frustration on the part of many countries and a campaign by civil-society groups have allowed a bit of sunlight into the process. This year, for the first time, candidates faced hearings with members of the Security Council. Most of them took part in public debates and took questions from the news media.
The Council had taken five informal polls over the last few months, but there was no way to distinguish how the five veto-wielding permanent members had voted. On Wednesday, for the first time, the permanent five — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — voted on red ballots, and the others on white ballots. This was designed to show which candidates might face a veto. When the counting was finished, it was clear that Mr. Guterres would not.
This article was written by Somini Sengupta and first published in the New York Times. Find the article here
On both questions, the seats of Sydney and Grayndler were also included in the ten, giving a total of seven ALP seats in the least supportive. The other seats were Denison (Independent), Melbourne (Greens) and Barton (Liberal). It is interesting to note that Barton is notionally ALP after a redistribution.
Read about the results of ABC Vote Compass as at 6 June
Malcolm Turnbull’s intrusion into the refugee debate (20/5) makes for sad reading. Turnbull writes “there is nothing generous about policies that lead families to drown at sea.” In April 2014 10,567 asylum seekers and refugees were registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees ( UNHCR ) in Indonesia.
Successive Australian governments have failed to consider alternative ways of stopping people losing their lives at sea, such as by providing a prompt assessment by the UNHCR in Indonesia and similar transit counties, and then transport to countries such as Australia for resettlement This has been suggested by many refugee advocates
In February 2016 the Greek islands coped with 2000 asylum seeker arrivals per day. If Australia could manage to process and take in 2000 asylum seekers per month then we could accommodate these 10,567 asylum seekers in under 6 months. But as one asylum seeker put it, processing is done at the speed of a turtle.
And instead of taking action to expedite the processing, Scott Morrison has ruled that asylum seekers who registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia from July 2014 are no longer eligible for resettlement in Australia.
Asylum seekers languishing in Indonesia, unable to work or send their children to school, have declared that by getting on a boat all they are risking is their bodies, not their lives because their lives have already been lost. Turnbull boasts that we are able to increase our annual refugee intake from 13,750 up to 18,750 by 2019. But consider the case of Germany which last year took in 1.25 million asylum seekers or 1.5% of their population of 80 million. If Australia took in 1.5% of its population of 24 million that would amount to 360,000.
Or consider the case of Lebanon which, with a population of 4.5 million, has just over 1 million refugees and asylum seekers.
Turnbull writes “these settlement services are costly.” Well, consider the cost of offshore detention. Detaining a single asylum seeker on Manus or Nauru costs $400,000 per year and the total cost to taxpayers exceeded $1 billion in the 2014-15 financial year. Close Manus and Nauru detention centres and the savings could be used to increase our refugee intake.
But cost is not the only reason why the Manus and Nauru detention centres should be closed. These offshore detention centres are factories producing cruelty. There have been deaths from murder, from failure to take urgent steps to treat serious medical conditions and from people setting themselves alight such is their despair at being detained for 3 years with no end in sight.
No business in abuse
Ferrovial, the company which currently runs the detention centres on Manus and Nauru, has been under intense pressure, including from investors, to divest itself from these detention centres. One financier spoken to said any business association with the offshore camps and their gross human rights violations would be a commercial disaster. As a result of this pressure, Ferrovial has stated that it is planning to walk away from Manus and Nauru. Advocates are keeping up the pressure on Ferrovial to expedite their departure plans.
Labor for Refugees
31 May 2016
World Vision's Tim Costello says keeping asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru is psychological torture.
'There's no question that the psychological torture of not being able to actually resettle, and you can't go back home, is torture,' he told Sky News on Sunday.
Mr Costello said the Somalian woman who set herself on fire on Nauru showed how desperate the federal government's refugee policy was making people.
'World Vision works in Somalia and 98 per cent of women suffer female genital mutilation. Somalia is a terrifying place,' he said.
'You would flee that, I would flee that.'
The Howard government's Pacific Solution meant there was no 'indefinite torture' on Nauru or Manus Island, Mr Costello said.
'It did stop the boats and quietly allowed all those who were found to be refugees - and it was 85 to 90 per cent - to be resettled back in Australia.'
He said Immigration Minister Peter Dutton's comments about refugees being 'illiterate' and taking Australian jobs were made because they resonated with some voters.
'The toxic (refugee) debate has leeched out something of the Australian soul,' Mr Costello said.
Boosting Australia's aid budget was crucial to solving the world's refugee crisis, he said.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has conceded the Mr Costello had a point, vowing to make regional resettlement a priority if he became prime minister after the July 2 election.
'The best answer is to defeat the people smugglers and make sure that the people in our care, directly or indirectly, get proper resettlement,' he told reporters in the inner-west Sydney seat of Reid
However, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he didn't accept Mr Costello's claim.
'It is absolutely critical that we maintain a secure border protection policy,' he told reporters in his eastern-Sydney electorate.
'That is why it is absolutely critical that people who seek to come to Australia through the services of people smugglers are not able to settle in Australia.'
- See more at: http://www.skynews.com.au/news/top-stories/2016/05/22/world-vision-head-accuses-govt-of-torture.html#sthash.KND10IDM.dpuf
English overboard: Dutton ditches the dog whistle and barks instead
Updated about 2 hours ago
Peter Dutton's statement on asylum seekers was, in its way, a work of art. Critics may yet come to consider this latest gust of enthusiasm the Minister's best work yet, writes Neil McMahon.
"They won't be numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English. These people would be taking Australian jobs, there's no question about that. For many of them that would be unemployed, they would languish in unemployment queues and on Medicare and the rest of it so there would be huge cost and there's no sense in sugar-coating that, that's the scenario."
Like a mountaineer opting to climb the final stage of Everest in thongs, he first boldly threw aside an Australian leader's favourite tool of trade - dog whistle be gone; no need for it once you have mastered the art of actually barking. And then he gave us what might be called the "English Overboard" affair of the 2016 campaign, a neat bookend to the kiddies-in-the-drink spectacular that so distinguished the 2001 showdown - the very election at which Dutton first presented his chiselled features and chosen fancies to voters.
Dutton's statement on asylum seekers was, in its way a work of art - and a particularly Queensland work of art at that. Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen himself would've been proud to have produced this collision of words and sentences, tumbling forth and governed only by the rule that each sentence was to make a swift nonsense of the sentence immediately preceding it.
And what a joy it is to behold - a minister holding forth on questions of literacy with the grammatical flair of an autocorrected drunk text.
In the space of three sentences, refugees were painted as the cleverest bunch of illiterate yet industrious job-hogging layabout if completely hypothetical invaders the Australian people had ever been invited to collectively clutch their pearls over.
(For good measure on the literacy front, Dutton questioned whether these folk would be "numerate ... in English", which doesn't add up at all. Counting is counting, Minister, and knows no tongue - eight weeks, to pick a random example, will always be eight endless, painful weeks, no matter the language in which we might grimly tally the toll. The words we use for counting - one, two, three - you following, Minister? - they would be a matter of literacy.)
Moving on and back to the fearmongering at hand. Despite, or perhaps because of, his blithe defiance of the need to make any sense, Dutton almost got away with it. Actually, he did get away with it on Sky News when he first said it, and make of that what you will. But not long after his warnings hit the outside world it became clear the Minister was actually stranded and left straddling in the most painful of positions.
Sir Joh himself could have warned him to take care - in a famous missive with almost eerie pertinence to Dutton's current role, the master of the Queensland word salad once advised:
You can't sit on a fence, a barbed wire fence at that, and have one ear to the ground.
Indeed you cannot, and nor should you try to dance on one, as Dutton is learning after his frolic along the wire last night. Not that he is one to be deterred easily.
He is, after all, a one-time northern copper, a determined bunch. Not for nothing was the young Dutton, aged just over 30, sent in on the frontline of that 2001 election.
Like many of his Queensland brethren - Sir Joh actually looked like a peanut, Peter Beattie like a plump tomato, Campbell Newman an overripe asparagus - Dutton came blessed with a certain farm-fresh visage. In his case, it was like a Brussels sprout had been cross-bred with Donny Osmond - and it was from those formidable teeth that one deduced he meant business.
And so it has proven, though taking care of business has made him perhaps even more prone than others to the pitfalls of public focus. His most famous how-to-wreck-a-photo-op moment came when a hovering microphone caught him cracking wise about rising sea levels swamping our Pacific neighbours. Prior to last night, this was his most notable contribution to comedy folklore, alongside his aborted stand-up experiment with Operation Border Force at Flinders Street station.
But critics may come to consider this latest gust of enthusiasm the Minister's best work yet, coming as it does a precise 100 days before the 15th anniversary of the Tampa crisis - the event that sealed the 2001 election result for John Howard, and therefore Dutton's political career.
A mere 17 days after Tampa came 9/11, and two months after that, polling day. Within those weeks lies the origin story for the politics of today - right up to that Dutton interview last night. Only the dog whistle was missing.
But he's always shown signs he didn't much see the need of it when you could just say things right out loud. In his maiden speech, this much was clear. He spoke of crime "causing older Australians to barricade themselves in their homes"; of "the boisterous minority and the politically correct" with their outsized influence; of the "silent majority ... fed up with bodies like the ... Refugee Action Collective".
this is an excerpt, to read the full article, go to:
Neil McMahon is a freelance writer.
First posted about 2 hours ago
Firstly I pay respect to the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional custodians of this land. As was said by the former young Australian of the year, former Afghan ref Akram Azimi, we make this acknowledgement not out of a sense of protocol but out of recognition that dreaming has not ended and we’re all a part of it. Thank you to Robin, Pauline, Ilia and everyone at Labor for Refugees Victoria for the invitation to be here with you tonight, and to all of you for coming. It is fantastic to be with people who are of like mind on what constitutes a decent Australia. I’d also like to acknowledge my dear friend Barry Jones, who has been a mentor for me in this job.
I’d now like to apologise to you all: the present political class of which I am a member has let Australia down badly - it has put in place, not just physically and legally but also psychologically, the grotesque system that Australia has developed over the past 15-plus years to treat some of the world’s most vulnerable people who turn to this country for help.
We intercept boats at sea, turn some around and deliver others directly into the hands of Sri Lankan or Vietnamese authorities. We pay people smugglers, we fund dark advertisements in the region warning that asylum seekers coming by boat will never be settled in Australia; we then endeavour to destroy the hopes, dreams and spirit of those who have arrived by boat. The fact that the UN refugee convention says that refugees shall not be punished for the manner of their arrival is ignored. We have seen the murder of Reza Berati on Manus – and now one of his alleged murderers has escaped and is on the loose in PNG - while the chief witness to the murder, Behnam Satah, who has received death threats, fears for his life every day inside Manus island detention centre.
We have seen the horrific and preventable death of Hamid Khehazaei, and numerous suicides including self-immolations, attempted suicides and riots. There is unequivocal evidence from medical practitioners that detainees including children are suffering sexual abuse, and serious mental and physical harm from the conditions of detention, as well as from the uncertainty and hopelessness of their situation. Independent commissions and parliamentary committees have taken evidence from former employees on Manus and Nauru about the sub-standard conditions. A senior person at UNHCR told me that he has seen many refugee camps in bad conditions during his long career around the world, but Manus and Nauru were the first examples he had seen of a wealthy country spending enormous sums of money to make conditions for asylum seekers as miserable as possible, by design.
The brilliant little book produced by Labor for refugees ‘The Drownings Argument’ contains a chapter by the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, which calculated that in 2013/14 Australia spent almost two-thirds as much locking up a few thousand people seeking asylum as the UNHCR spent assisting tens of millions of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide. The costs of offshore processing for the Department of Immigration alone (not including border protection, police and defence costs) were more than $3.28b – or more than $1.3 million per detained person per year - while UNHCR’s whole budget worldwide that year for helping tens of millions of people was $5.3b. Of course this doesn’t include the human costs arising from prolonged detention in centres which Patrick McGorry has described as ‘factories for producing mental illness’.
We might well ask how did Australia – the land of the fair go, the land of tolerance and egalitarianism - get to this point? Certainly the Howard government era laid the groundwork, with its demonisation of asylum seekers as queue jumpers, as people who would throw their own children overboard and as potential disease-carriers and would-be terrorists. The present generation of politicians on both sides has adopted a somewhat different tactic, largely using the cloak of humanitarian language to justify cruel policies. The claim is that we are stopping the exploitation of asylum seekers by evil people smugglers and that we are saving people from drowning at sea by deterring them from even attempting the journey. Isn't it extraordinary that the government denounces people smugglers while at the same time paying them to take people in the other direction?
And how do you deter people who have no other option? Those who come to Australia by boat cannot get here in any authorised way. If you are Afghan or Rohingya for instance, you stand almost no chance of being granted a visa by Australia if you apply for one or of being resettled to Australia through UNHCR, even if you are proved to be a refugee. You could wait in the so-called queue for 100 years and still never be allowed to come. Many of these people, knowing the risks of boat travel, will still take the chance of reaching Australia by the only means open to them, because they are escaping unsafe conditions at home and unsafe conditions in transit countries, where they have no right to work and no access to health or education services and where they could be imprisoned or sent home any time.
In my view, the cruel policies are not really about deterrence at all. As in countries that retain the death penalty, the justification given is deterrence even though all the evidence shows that deterrence is ineffective. The real motivation is revenge and punishment for breaking the rules, for being “illegal”, although as we know, under the Refugee Convention it is not illegal to seek asylum. It is a nonsense to say that you are saving lives by punishing one group of people who have already arrived by boat in order to deter another potential group of people from getting on a boat.
If you genuinely cared about saving people from drowning, would you not be working to create the conditions in origin and transit countries, and to reach resettlement agreements and to increase our own humanitarian intake, measures that would mean people do not need to get on boats in the first place? That is what a genuine regional protection framework is about. If you genuinely cared about human life, would you not make the effort to find out what has happened to the people who are deterred from taking those boat journeys to Australia, or who are turned back or towed back to Indonesia on orange lifeboats? A great many of those people will still be refugees fleeing persecution, they will still need a safe haven and they will still be facing uncertain and precarious existences without rights in transit countries. They may well still die fleeing persecution on a different sea or trapped in an airless container. We do not reduce the risk to these people by taking away one of their escape options; we merely displace the risk to another time and place.
I’m sure everyone here remembers last year when there were boats stranded on the Andaman Sea full of Rohingya refugees – people who have been described as “the most persecuted minority on earth”. The countries in the region called for Australia to assist by taking some of the refugees and participating in a regional conference to discuss the issue. That was when PM Abbott shamefully said ‘Nope nope nope’ and sent a low level functionary to the regional discussion. What message did that send to the region and the world about our readiness to uphold our international human rights obligations and to bear our share of the regional and global challenge of displaced persons?
Australia‘s actions have of course not gone unnoticed in the international community. It is telling that in his first speech in the role the current UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, made a specific reference to Australia as follows:
"Australia's policy of off-shore processing for asylum seekers arriving by sea, and its interception and turning back of vessels, is leading to a chain of human rights violations, including arbitrary detention and possible torture following return to home countries. It could also lead to the resettlement of migrants in countries that are not adequately equipped. … Human rights are not reserved for citizens only, or for people with visas. They are the inalienable rights of every individual, regardless of his or her location and migration status.”
In an article titled 'Eroding human rights in Australian foreign policy, one asylum seeker at a time', Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director, Phil Robertson, recently wrote:
“Australia is rarely pushing for rights-respecting solutions these days - and more than that, is too often part of the problem. Politicians trapped in the refugee policy dialogue in Canberra frequently fail to recognise that Australia’s boat push-back policies, and offshoring asylum seekers into abusive conditions of detention in Nauru and on Manus Island, are seen as a green-light by Asian governments to do the same: …
By soliciting governments to help stop boats, Australia also ends up looking the other way on other rights abuses. By cooperating with Australia to take back boats of their nationals, both Sri Lanka and Vietnam know they could count on Australia not to publicly raise concerns about the rights abuses that drove those people into the boats in the first place. …
Meanwhile, Cambodia is laughing all the way to the bank with at least $55m of Australia’s taxpayer dollars for taking just five refugees so far from Nauru. All this for a deal that the UN high commissioner for refugees termed “a worrying departure from international norms” of refugee protection."
There are now only two refugees left in Cambodia, making that policy even more of a debacle.
The sheer hypocrisy of Australia’s bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council on the basis of our strong record of upholding human rights has undoubtedly not been lost on our European competitors for the seat. Whatever the damage to Australia’s international reputation, the far greater harm is being inflicted on our fellow human beings.
It seems there is no limit to the cruelty to be imposed on people in the name of deterrence. Not even proven murder, suicide and widespread raping and attacking of asylum seekers and refugees, including children, has been sufficient to cause a change in policy or to implement something as basic and essential to good governance as independent oversight. The government does not want oversight because it is the secrecy, the identification of people only by number, the hiding of their faces and personal stories that allows the suffering to go on out of sight and mind of the Australian community.
In his new book, The Shock of Recognition, Barry Jones describes the situation of refugees detained without evidence or right of appeal, being 'nameless, faceless and without an identity', as 'straight from the world of Kafka'. I might add that it is also from the world of Orwell, who wrote in 1946 that “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. The government denies any responsibility for what happens in PNG and on Nauru while simultaneously building the detention centres, hiring and paying the detention centre operators and managing everything that goes on in those places.
As Labor for Refugees points out in its excellent submission to the current Senate inquiry into the conditions and treatment of asylum seekers and refugees at the regional processing centres in Nauru and PNG, it is the Australian government that has rejected the New Zealand government’s offer to permanently resettle 150 people a year from the RPCs, and “That clearly demonstrates who is effectively and ultimately in charge of these centres and responsible for the standards there.”
Over the past few years, the Australian government – supported, sadly, in many cases by the Opposition - has passed Bill after Bill designed to remove the many rights and liberties that Australia has sworn to uphold. Unfortunately, this ‘negative bipartisanship’ on asylum seekers, as Barry Jones has called it, continues to this day. Just last month further changes were made to the Migration Act to remove rights to due process, natural justice and review from yet more people, to prolong their detention and to increase the personal discretionary powers of the Minister.
Last year, the government made amendments to the Migration Act in which it retrospectively absolved itself of responsibility for everything that has happened on Manus and Nauru since August 2012. The High Court recently upheld that law as constitutional. Why? It is not because the government really is behaving in a decent manner despite all evidence to the contrary; it is because there are virtually no human rights protections in the Australian Constitution and the parliament has the ultimate power to make laws on any matter, no matter how draconian. This is why many people have been calling for a bill of rights or a human rights act, Australia being the only Western democracy without one.
Regardless of the domestic legal position, under international law Australia cannot contract out its legal responsibilities and remains responsible for the plight of people it sends to Manus and Nauru. Of course, Australia also remains morally responsible. It seems that in the last decade and a half, we as a nation have forgotten the lessons of World War II—the direct connection with suffering that led Australia to be the sixth signatory to The Refugee Convention that brought it into force.
The wonderful Julian Burnside tells one of the stories behind the refugee convention in the Labor for Refugees Book “The Drownings Argument”. In May 1939 a ship called the St Louis captained by Gustav Schroeder left Hamburg carrying 900 Jewish refugees. The St Louis was denied access to every port it approached. It got as far as Cuba and was warned off the coast of Florida at gunpoint. Schroeder took the St Louis back to Europe and put his cargo ashore at Antwerp.
Following the occupation of the Netherlands by the Nazis, more than half the refugees on the St Louis were captured and ultimately perished in concentration camps. Burnside observes that in light of the current political attitudes in Australia, it is worth noting that Captain Schroeder was a people smuggler. Burnside then asks if those countries who denied the St Louis the right to land might look back now and consider whether their decision was a policy success or a humanitarian tragedy.
Here in Australia we are not only denying desperate and traumatised women, men and children the right to land but we are further punishing those who do make the journey and claim asylum. When you consider that millions of the world’s refugees are being hosted in poor neighbouring countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and millions more are trying to get to Europe, our fear of a few thousand people arriving to our remote shores by boat is exposed as ridiculous and our commitment of some 13,000 humanitarian places is not as generous as our political leaders would have the community believe.
A couple of years ago, I visited Jordan and Lebanon as part of a UNICEF Australia delegation to see the situation of the Syrian refugees and the host countries. Just to take Lebanon for instance, it is a small country with a population of 4 million people. It is hosting around 2 million Syrian refugees – that is around half of its population again. It would be the equivalent of 12 million people turning up on Australia's doorstep. When we asked the Lebanese PM how his country was coping with this many refugees he said, ‘What can we do – they are our brothers and sisters and they need our help.’ What the Lebanese PM understood and what our political leadership refuses to acknowledge is that no-one chooses to be a refugee; no child grows up wanting to be a refugee.
When I worked with the UN in Kosovo, I saw hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming back from neighbouring countries to their burnt-out homes to live in tents in the middle of the harshest winter on record. I wondered why they didn’t remain for longer in those neighbouring countries, where they were safe and warm. The simple answer was that they just wanted to be home. I worked with Palestinian refugees in the Middle East who had lived in appallingly dire conditions for decades in the hope that they would one day return to their homes in what is now Israel. Far from the cynical reasoning of many in the West that asylum seekers are people who are really just seeking a better life, my own UN experience tells me that people overwhelmingly prefer to live at home and they do not leave or stay away from their homes without very good reason.
The former President of Latvia Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who fled her country as a child during the Second World War said this:
No one leaves their home willingly or gladly. When people leave en masse the place of their birth, the place where they live it means there is something very deeply wrong with the circumstances in that country and we should never take lightly these flights of refugees fleeing across borders. They are a sign, they are a symptom, they are proof that something is very wrong somewhere on the international scene. When the moment comes to leave your home, it is a painful moment.
It can be a costly choice. Three weeks and three days after my family left the shores of Latvia, my little sister died. We buried her by the roadside, we were never able to return or put a flower on her grave.
And I like to think that I stand here today as a survivor who speaks for all those who died by the roadside, some buried by their families and others not and for all those millions across the world today who do not have a voice who cannot be heard but they are also human beings, they also suffer, they also have their hopes, their dreams and their aspirations. Most of all they dream of a normal life.
Malcom Fraser understood this and as PM led the way in welcoming tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees to Australia and in establishing a safe and orderly regional framework for the processing of asylum seekers. He continued to advocate for humane solutions right up until his death just over a year ago. As a child I shared my parents’ sense of outrage about the Whitlam Dismissal and its architects. So, one of the great surprises of my time as a parliamentarian was the friendship I developed with Malcolm Fraser. So disenchanted with the major parties was the former PM that he was in the process of setting up a new political party. It was only his unexpected death that put an end to the project.
Can I say though, we don’t actually need a new party. We just need the Labor Party to be true to its own values.
There is a large and growing number of people in the Australian community, (beyond the usual refugee advocates) - who believe we have as a country gone too far. We are seeing doctors and nurses refusing to discharge children from hospitals if they will be sent to Nauru. We have seen faith leaders staging peaceful sit-ins of MPs offices around the country, and churches offering sanctuary. And we have also seen a strong movement in Labor – especially through L4R and the union movement - and momentum at state Labor conferences and last year’s national conference in support of resolutions in favour of more humanitarian policies.
At the national conference last year, despite failing to prohibit boat turn-backs, Labor adopted some very good provisions:
- To invest more resources upstream in countries of origin such as Myanmar to address the root causes of why people are leaving their home countries in the first place and in transit countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, to enable UNHCR to carry out timely processing and ensure that more community and official support is avail to asylum seekers so that they are not living without rights & livelihoods in a constant state of insecurity.
- To lift our humanitarian intake to 27,000 a year. I would like to see us go even further. Each year Australia accepts some 200,000 new migrants – if a portion of this number – say a quarter – were allocated to humanitarian places there would still be the same number of people coming to Australia overall.
As we know, many refugees are highly skilled, they are keen to contribute and they have shown great courage and resourcefulness in getting here. Such people can only enhance our country, as demonstrated by the appointment of former Vietnamese refugee Hieu Van Le as South Australian governor, to give just one example.
- Labor also committed to an independent advocate for children seeking asylum, community based processing where possible, 90 day maximum detention, no indefinite detention, appropriate standards of care and transparent independent oversight of detention facilities.
It all sounds great, so what’s the problem? The problem is that this is a program for what Labor will do in office – and hopefully that will be soon. But while in opposition Labor has demonstrated time and again that it will not oppose the government regarding its asylum seeker policies, even where they are inconsistent with our own policies. The reason given by political hard-heads is that the Coalition wins when the conversation is about refugees or border protection or national security, while Labor loses. So, the tactic is to stick close to the Coalition on these matters and shift the political debate to issues more favourable to Labor, such as health and education.
I actually don’t agree with this. There are some, even many, Australians who if asked will say they support tough policies for asylum seekers. Many of these views are based on incorrect or no information. In any event, research has shown, it is not an issue on which they will determine their vote. Fundamentally, voters really want to know what you stand for and Labor has traditionally stood for, among other things, upholding human rights. Making people uncertain about what you stand for is far more damaging in my view than having a policy that people may not love but which does not affect them personally.
Labor is never going to out-right the right and the 2007 Rudd election showed that Labor can win, and win well, with a range of progressive policies. There is clearly a strong desire from many in the Labor party and increasingly in the wider community for Labor to be truer to ourselves, to start with our values and principles and instincts, and then think about the politics of making those things real, rather than the other way round.
The community is powerful. The international and local reaction to the image of the small boy on the beach in Turkey led even the Abbott government to announce it would accept an extra 12,000 Syrian refugees. Of course, only 29 or so have actually arrived in Australia to date. But the point is that that was a community victory. As was the release of children from detention last weekend.
Manus and Nauru are not and have never been sustainable solutions. It is clear that refugees cannot be resettled on PNG – those few who were released from Manus into PNG have found life very difficult and some are even trying to come back to Manus. The PNG PM said last month that the Manus Island detention centre is a problem that has done severe reputational damage to PNG and should end. He also said PNG cannot resettle those found to be refugees.
It is clear that the vast majority of refugees on the tiny island of Nauru cannot be resettled there either. Cambodia has been an expensive debacle. The Australian government has refused NZ’s offer to take 150 refugees a year from regional processing centres. So, there is big problem brewing for the government in having thousands of people for whom it has responsibility marooned offshore, not being processed, not being resettled, and this will inevitably, and in the not too distant future, blow up in its face.
When political leadership is missing, as it is right now, it is the community that can shame them into action. Grandmothers against refugee children in detention came from around Australia to protest at the national parliament last month – against the backdrop of the green parliamentary lawns there was a sea of white hair and purple clothes – it was a truly magnificent sight! The Palm Sunday rallies around the country last month were huge – the Perth one was the biggest I have ever been to. The City of Fremantle is one of 143 local governments around the nation to become a refugee welcome zone.
The momentum is building throughout Australia against an unjust and an unsustainable situation. So please continue to work within your local communities, political parties, and professional and social networks to build alliances, to speak to MPs and to find new ways to protest and to find as many others as possible to protest, especially those who may not have spoken up before. It really does make a difference.
As Margaret Meade so wisely said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” And as another wise woman, my predecessor in the seat of Fremantle Dr Carmen Lawrence said in her first speech to federal parliament, quoting the late Sarah Henderson: “Don’t wait for a light to appear at the end of the tunnel. Stride up there and light the bloody thing yourself.”