Greens right to reject offshore processing
Since the deaths of asylum seekers when two boats headed to Australia capsized, parliament has been locked in a debate about how to “save lives”. But the “debate” is framed in such a way to ensure that more lives will be lost and more refugees victimised. ALP and Coalition MPs are pushing a policy of refugee “deterrence” designed to simply move refugees somewhere else.
On June 22, a boat carrying about 200 refugees capsized on its way to Christmas Island. Another vessel capsized on June 28. So far, reports say at least 91 refugees have drowned and others are still missing.
Coalition opposition leader Tony Abbott wasted no time in attacking Prime Minister Julia Gillard for the crisis, claiming her government had failed to “stop the boats”. Gillard replied that it was Abbott’s fault for not supporting her plan to change the migration act in 2011 and send Australia’s asylum seekers to Malaysia.
Her solution is to ask Coalition and Greens MPs to “compromise”. But Gillard’s so-called compromise includes bringing back the previous Howard government’s Temporary Protection Visas and reopening the Nauru detention centre.
By June 27, independent MP Rob Oakeshott moved a bill with the support of the ALP and other independents.
The Oakeshott bill relied on an “offshore solution” — seizing refugees who enter Australian waters and taking them to a third country for “processing”. The bill would have allowed the government to send refugees to Malaysian detention centres.
In return, Australia would accept 800 asylum seekers now languishing in Malaysia.
The Coalition opposes the policy, arguing that Malaysia isn’t a signatory to the UN Convention on refugees. This is cynical posturing — when in power, the Coalition was happy to hold refugees in terrible conditions in Nauru, which signed the convention only after its detention centres closed.
Abbott and Coalition immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison pretend they care for the plight of refugees, but they have called for boats to be towed back to Indonesia — endangering the lives of all aboard.
During the parliamentary debate about refugee policy, Liberal MP Natasha Griggs appeared so distraught she began crying. But in December last year, she called for excursion rights to be denied to all refugees in detention.
Aside from the hypocritical dispute about precisely which Third World country Australia should send its refugees to, Labor and the Coalition agree on the fundamentals.
Both say they want to “deter” refugees from coming to Australia by boat by sending them to another country. If enough of these people are “deterred” from “jumping the queue”, the argument goes, then we will save lives because fewer people will risk their lives in a leaky boat on dangerous seas.
The big parties, not the public, are pushing this race to the bottom on refugee rights. In September last year, an Age Nielsen poll said more Australians, and more supporters of each of Liberal and Labor, opposed than supported offshore processing of refugees.
The offshore processing “solution” ignores the desperation that refugees already face when boarding a boat.
It ignores the fact that people take boats, not because they are convenient, but because our own migration laws mean that this is the only way some people can enter Australia. Monash University’s Sharon Pickering said in a June 28 The Conversation article: “Australia’s universal visa system deems entire groups ‘high-risk’. For example, those from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka are routinely denied [tourist and other] visas that would enable them to arrive legitimately by air.
“These groups are not considered risky because they represent a significant security threat (for, say, terrorism or serious crime), but because they may engage Australia’s protection obligations. No one is talking about changing these risk profiles and visa issuing practices.”
The push to send refugees to other countries ignores the lack of control that refugees have over their lives. When fleeing a country that oppresses and persecutes them, refugees place their lives in the hands of whoever will get them out.
The deterrence policy also ignores how it damages and hurts defenseless people. Australi's policy of mandatory detention for refugees is also justified as a deterrence. It means refugees spend, on average, two years locked up in detention centres, which have been described as “factories for producing mental illness”.
Sane but traumatised refugees wanting a better life go in; damaged, highly medicated people who require assistance in the most basic tasks come out. Many refugees harm themselves in detention. Some commit suicide.
Australia has deported asylum seekers to countries where they have later been killed by the forces they were fleeing from. In Malaysia, refugees have been abused and starved by authorities. Right now, there is an outbreak of civil violence in Burma, the product of long-simmering ethnic tensions that has displaced 90,000 people last month.
A humane response to the refugee crisis would take note of the real reasons people seek asylum here. It would respect their right to seek asylum and protect their human rights. But neither Gillard nor Abbott is offering refugees a humane policy.
Labor for Refugees Victoria secretary Robin Rothfield said on June 28: "Both major parties in Parliament are blinded by their obsession with outdoing each other in punishing the very people they cry for. These poor people will be punished if they are forcibly sent to either Malaysia or Nauru."
The Labor for Refugees NSW co-convenor said: “Labor for Refugees is embarrassed to say only the Greens’ solution identifies a decent and realistic way of stopping the boats”. The Greens have called for the government to take steps to bring in more refugees from neighbouring countries safely.
It would take a genuinely independent media to point these things out. Unfortunately, the Australian media has mostly played along with the hysteria. The mainstream media put enormous pressure on the Australian Greens to cave in to Labor.
Rob Burgess from the Business Spectator led the charge on Crikey on June 28. Burgess condemned the Greens’ insistence on treating refugees as people who are desperate and need to be supported, rather than consumers of a smuggler’s product who need to be dissuaded.
He said: “[T]he extreme danger of their method of reaching Australia should, alone, be reason enough to give priority to legal resettlements.
“The Greens’ hardline policy against offshore processing fails to do that. It risks lives.”
Leigh Sales on the June 27 7.30 Report joined the attack on the Greens in her interview with Senator Christine Milne. She accused the Greens’ leader of sitting idly by while the rest of parliament “worked together” to “stop the boats”. Sales said onshore processing had led to “dozens of boats coming to Australia, boats sinking at sea, people dying” and asked Milne, “How many boats will need to sink before the Greens reconsider their position on this?”
Milne responded: “That is a really offensive question because the Greens have always supported a safe pathway for refugees coming to Australia.”
The Greens resisted this pressure. Their stand helped defeat Oakeshott’s bill in the Senate. Gillard has now set up an "expert panel" to discuss the issue headed by former Defence Chief Angus Houston.
In the past few days, the two big parties have pushed the refugee debate even further to the right, showing a blind dedication to punitive measures that punish desperate people who need our help. That both parties are pretending to be driven by sympathy for refugees makes their performance even more obscene.