Petty politicking over whether refugees should be illegally deported to Malaysia or to Nauru forced the Australian government to abandon its policy of “offshore processing” of refugees on October 13.
Since the “Tampa election” in 2001, competition between the two main parties over who can most mistreat the small number of refugees arriving in Australia by boat has been at the centre of Australian electoral politics.
Offshore processing, the policy of deporting refugees to be imprisoned in countries other than their place of origin, has served the Liberal-National Coalition well in this ugly contest since. Following victory in the “Tampa election”, the Howard Coalition government introduced the “Pacific Solution”, under which refugees were held in prison camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
The ALP won power in 2007 with a policy of ending offshore processing. But PM Julia Gillard allowed her government to be goaded by the Coalition and the corporate media into negotiating a deal to deport 800 refugees to Malaysia in exchange for Australia raising its annual humanitarian intake from 10,000 to 14,750. The extra 4000 were to come from the 90,000 UN-certified asylum seekers in Malaysia.
Gillard also began talks with PNG to reopen the Manus Island camp, in effect announcing a bipartisan consensus on offshore processing.
However, legal action on behalf of detained refugees threatened with deportation to Malaysia led to an August 31 High Court ruling. It not only found the ALP’s “Malaysia Solution” contravened Australian and international law, but put the whole policy of offshore processing under a legal cloud. Both big parties remain committed to the policy and both put up legislation to overturn the High Court’s decision.
But the big party politicians’ irresistible need to score points against each other meant the opposition was willing to pass government legislation only if it specified Nauru as the deported refugees’ destination. For its part, the ALP was adamant that Malaysia was the preferred option and refused the opposition’s amendments.
Between them, the ALP and the Coalition hold 145 out of 150 seats in the lower house. But they failed in their common aim of legalising offshore processing.
Gillard’s plans to cut vital protections out of the migration act and allow refugees in Australia to be expelled to a third country didn’t even make it to debate in parliament on October 13.
The bill was killed off by maverick WA Nationals MP Tony Crook siding with the Coalition. He said there was a very fine line between the two parties, but called for refugees to be sent to Nauru and for temporary protection visas to be brought back.
Victoria’s state Labor Party carried a resolution on October 8 that called on the federal government to “uphold our platform and values by abandoning the current fixation with offshore ‘solutions’ and establishing a just and humane approach for people seeking asylum”.
A Senate inquiry report released just before the bill’s supposed day in parliament also slammed the deal.
While opposition leader Tony Abbott gleefully said Gillard “does not deserve to stay in office” because “no self-respecting country would agree to a five to one people swap”, a Labor cabinet caucus decided to proceed with assessing refugees onshore, ABC Online said on October 13.
Calling the shift to a more humane approach an “interim” measure, immigration minister Chris Bowen said refugee claims could be fast-tracked and some refugees may be able to live in the community and have some opportunity to work.
“Bridging visas are currently used as a matter of course, particularly for people who arrive by air,” Bowen said.
Refugees are locked up for arriving by boat under the present system. The October 14 Australian said some refugees could be released from detention and given 90-day “bridging visas” with “work rights and welfare support worth 89% of normal unemployment benefits …
“You could imagine and expect that they would be used to deal with pressures on the detention network.”
However, Bowen and Gillard said the government was still “committed” to carrying out the Australia-Malaysia refugee swap scheme, blamed the Coalition for not acting in “the national interest” and said Australia was at risk of “seeing more boats”.
Yet Labor’s reluctant backflip is a welcome relief to many. Under the ALP’s withdrawn amendments to the migration act, the immigration minister could decide where to expel refugees, the only condition being Australia’s “national interests” and not the rights of refugees.
The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre called the amendments “dangerous”.
But at the Senate inquiry, UN High Commissioner for Refugees regional representative Richard Towle oddly described the Malaysia solution as “better” for refugees than Australia’s mandatory detention policy.
Sydney Refugee Action Coalition spokesperson Ian Rintoul said Towle’s comments were ill-informed and irresponsible: “People come to Australia because there is no prospect of safe resettlement in south-east Asia. The Malaysia deal would make Australia complicit with the persecution of refugees in Malaysia, where there is no control over how they are treated.
“It is absurd to believe that Malaysia’s assurances of humane treatment can be ‘carefully monitored’. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees itself is chronically unable to cope with the more than 90,000 registered refugees in Malaysia.”
But Towle’s comments also highlight the shocking human rights abuses against refugees in Australia’s refugee detention centres. Self-harm and suicide attempts made by refugees locked up for excessively long periods have become endemic.
Three suicide attempts took place in the Northern Immigration Detention Centre (NIDC) in Darwin over October 9-11. Rintoul says it has become a daily occurrence.
Emails from NIDC obtained by the Darwin Asylum Seekers and Advocacy Support Network revealed immigration staff denied water and food to a refugee holding a peaceful rooftop protest in June.
The ABC said on October 12 that the emails showed immigration staff breached protocols to force the refugee to end his protest in the humid Darwin heat. Many rooftop protests and hunger strikes have been carried out by refugees in NIDC, taken by refugees who have been locked up for up to two years.
Gillard said in caucus the ALP needed clarify its position at its national conference in December, the October 12 Australian said.
Labor’s platform, unanimously adopted in 2009, says: “Protection claims made in Australia will be assessed by Australians on Australian territory.”