A right to seek refuge

DR TOM VOSMER is a maritime archaeologist who lived and worked in the Middle East for decades.

Grappling with a refugee crisis of boat people after the end of Vietnam War, the Fraser government was offered some options for dealing with it:

1.Reprovision and refuel all boats, tow them beyond the three-mile limit and encourage them to find some other country to land in.

2. Treat boat refugees almost as lepers, segregating them into special camps and giving them minimal standards of support.

3. Construct a major holding centre in some very remote area … and hold them in such a camp indefinitely.

The Fraser government rejected these and all similar suggestions, declaring

‘We will not risk action against genuine refugees just to get a message across. That would be an utterly inhuman course of action.’

That message was heeded, with Immigration demanding procedures ‘consistent with Australia’s international obligations.’ The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees noted ‘a high degree of compassion, interest and preparedness to help’ the boat arrivals.

How far we have fallen. Our current and previous governments have enthusiastically embraced all three of those odious suggestions.

Current asylum seeker policy amounts to deliberate punishment of vulnerable people and holding them in remote and inadequately equipped detention centres just to ‘send a message’.

Dispensing cruelty and uncertainty to the helpless is counter to everything Australia allegedly stands for. ‘Saving lives at sea’, the banner vigorously waved by government, is just an empty slogan; there are many ways to save the lives of refugees at sea other than by punishing the victims themselves.

The government may have a mandate to stop the boats, to put the people smugglers out of business, but must we enforce that mandate by inflicting long-term incarceration and distress on innocent people whose only act was to try to escape danger and persecution?

It is commendable that Australia has taken positive steps to reduce its number of refugees in detention, and that it has even increased its total refugee intake, but the issue of those people who arrived by boat remains, gnawing at the very humanitarian principles we supposedly defend.

There was a time when our government encouraged us to understand and sympathise with refugees and the situations in which they found themselves, and to understand our obligations in regard to refugees under international law.

But under John Howard’s leadership during the Tampa incident that all started to change.

These people, we were misleadingly told, ‘could be terrorists, these people throw their children into the sea, these people will take our jobs.

These are not the kind of people we want in Australia.’

Due to government secrecy and spin a great deal of misinformation still swirls around the issue of asylum seekers and refugees. First is the sticky tag of boat people being labelled ‘illegal maritime arrivals’.

There is nothing illegal about seeking asylum, by whatever means. The mode of transport should not be a determinant of refugee status.

Immigration minister Peter Dutton states that there are no children in detention.

That is disingenuous, a semantic trick, labelling the facilities on Nauru as ‘processing centres’, not detention centres.

There are still about 150 kids on this island nation, which is barely larger than Rottnest (some have ‘celebrated’ their fifth Christmas there).

There is a parallel on Manus: that detention centre has been closed and hundreds of refugees forcibly moved to ‘transitional accommodation’.

The government claims there are no refugees in detention on Manus, but where are the hundreds being held there being transitioned to exactly?

Being trapped on Manus or Nauru, whether confined to a processing centre or not, is anyone’s definition of detention.

As of October 2017, the number of children detained on Nauru was:

• OPC 3 Camp (the old tented detention camp on the white gravel) – 52
• EWA Camp – 22, aged 2 to 18 years
• Nibok Camp – 20, age 1 to 15 years
• Anibare Camp – 3, age 7 months, 2 years, 12 years
• Eloo Camp – 12, including four 2-year olds
• Anijo Camp – 51, aged 6 months to 18 years

Deprivation of any semblance of a normal childhood is proven to lead to the development of significant psychological and social problems that can persist throughout a lifetime.

The Nauru files (leaked in 2016) included over 2000 incident reports by staff; 1086 involved children and included sexual abuse, but by late 2016 nobody had been charged for these abuses.

The Committee for the Rights of the Child and the UNHCR’s specific guidelines for asylum-seeking children emphasise that immigration detention of children must primarily have an ethic of care prioritising the best interest of the child above immigration enforcement. Australia seems to have that concept backwards.

The original agreements with Nauru and PNG declared that all detainees would be processed within six months or a ’reasonable time’, yet asylum seekers have been on Nauru and Manus Island for years. More than 80% on Manus and 87% on Nauru have been declared genuine refugees yet they remain in limbo with nowhere to go and no hope or prospects for the future. No one can consider years a ‘reasonable time’. In the UK the maximum time an unaccompanied child refugee can be held in detention is 24 hours, and the vast majority of all immigration detainees in the UK are released in less than 29 days. In the US the average detention period is 30 days, in France 10 days and in Canada 25 days. In Australia the average is 454 days.

There are avenues to expedite the resettlement of refugees. New Zealand has offered to accept 150 asylum seekers annually from Australia on several occasions, but we have rejected this offer every time, ostensibly because the government is worried about ‘backdoor’ immigration. If that is the real concern, surely some special arrangement could be made that would apply to those asylum seekers. In Canada, individual families can sponsor a refugee. In the UK, refugee sponsorship can be made through charities and organisations separate from government. The benefits of private sponsorship have been found to include improved community integration, strong bonds between refugees and sponsors, engaged communities and the fostering of positive attitudes towards refugees.

The government claims that the facilities on Nauru and Manus are acceptable but housing in tents in the hot, humid conditions on Nauru causes mould to develop, leading to such serious health problems in refugees and staff alike that the government purchased a $50,000 industrial steam cleaner. It proved to be so ‘industrial’ that its use damaged the accommodation. It is now relegated to cleaning the bottoms of buses.

Medical facilities

Medical facilities are adequate to treat some common ailments or minor injuries but there have been ten deaths on Manus and Nauru, some of which could have been prevented by timely transfer to Australia for necessary treatment. Twenty-three year old Iranian Omid Masoumali died of burns that could have been successfully treated in Australia. Hamid Kehazaei, also 23, died after a cut on his foot became infected and he developed septicaemia; transfer to Australia for treatment was delayed until it was too late to save him. Another Iranian man, Reza Barati, 24, died after being beaten by locals on Manus with nail-studded timber and rocks. Australia’s duty of care has failed.

Recently it was reported that Australian Border Force officials are telling refugees on Nauru they should separate from their wives and children — and face never seeing them again — in order to apply for resettlement in the US. Several immigration department sources, as well as sources on Nauru, have confirmed that it is ‘unofficial policy’ to use family separation as a coercive measure to encourage refugees to agree to return to Nauru from Australia, or even to abandon their protection claims altogether. In one instance the ABF sent a Release of Custody Agreement document to a refugee on Nauru asking him to relinquish all claim to his infant daughter born in Australia in order to be considered for resettlement in the US. Such separation is inhumane and in contravention of international law.

Families are the building blocks of society, the mechanism for imparting cultural values, promoting education, encouraging social cohesion and building economic independence. Intentional family separation, even as unofficial policy, is unconscionable.

The Economics

Economically, Australian policy is irresponsible and makes no sense at all. In 2016 the average cost per day per refugee in detention in the UK was £86 (AUD152). We spend over $1000 per day per refugee for offshore detention, which is approximately $400,000 per refugee annually. For an asylum seeker in mainland detention the cost is about $100,000 and less than $50,000 for an asylum seeker on a bridging visa in the community.

It would be far less expensive to integrate these people into the Australian community.

By their incessant shrill demonisation of boat arrivals, the government has painted itself into a corner. How can it now do the right thing, the humane thing, the honourable thing?

It is time that government, in fact both major parties, rediscover their moral compass and take steps to resolve this situation. We are better than this — aren’t we?

For people who care about people, there is a march in support of refugees on Palm Sunday, March 25, starting from St George’s Cathedral in Perth at 1 pm.

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