Federal Labor MP Anna Burke captured the Gillard government’s increasingly right-wing refugee policy when she said plans to reopen the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea would be “going back to something we said we wouldn’t do, which is the Pacific solution”.
Burke told ABC news on August 15 she had raised concerns in caucus about an overseas detention centre as well as the “Malaysia solution”, which faces a legal challenge in the High Court and could also be subject to a parliamentary inquiry.
She said she was concerned whether the government could “really guarantee the safety of the 800 people” it wanted to send to Malaysia.
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A Herald/Nielsen poll released on August 16 showed most Australian also disagreed with the government’s plans to expel refugees. The poll showed 53% of people thought refugees should have their claims heard in Australia. Of that, 41% said refugees should be able to live in the community, not detention.
The Australian government signed a deal with Papua New Guinea to reopen the detention camp at Manus Island on August 19.
Immigration minister Chris Bowen called the push to lock refugees up offshore part of regional "co-operative measures".
The camp was built in 2001 by the John Howard government under the “Pacific solution” and was run by the International Organisation for Migration. Refugees were held for years in the remote prison-like camp, guarded by local soldiers.
The limited Australian “oversight” was inadequate to cope with distressed and traumatised war victims from places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
Many cases of suicide attempts, breakouts and hunger strikes took place and diseases such as malaria, typhoid fever and tuberculosis were widespread.
In 2003, Green Left Weekly exposed the government’s appalling neglect of the Manus Island detention camp when it revealed that a sole detainee, Aladdin Sisalem, was still locked up after the Howard government declared the camp empty.
Sisalem was a 24-year-old Palestinian refugee who spent 10 months alone on Manus Island, refused assistance by the UN refugee agency and ignored by the Australian government.
He told GLW about much of the human rights abuses all refugees experienced while locked up in the “Australian-owned” detention camp.
He saw PNG soldiers “beating young men whom the Australian government had confirmed were refugees”.
They also beat Sisalem, “with the approval of the International Organisation for Migration” and “put him in a hot and mosquito-ridden underground isolation cell”. Sisalem suffered bouts of malaria long after his resettlement in Australia.
Now, the Labor government is rushing to reopen the derelict detention camp. Its key purpose is to carry out Labor’s plans to expel refugees from Australia without hearing their claim to asylum.
Many human rights and legal groups opposed the Australia-Malaysia human swap deal because the government refused to exclude children and other vulnerable people from the deal. Bowen merely said “people smugglers would exploit that loophole”.
By partially restarting the Howard-era “Pacific solution”, the Labor government intends to deport refugees even if the swap deal with Malaysia fails.
This puts refugees at significant risk. The government has proven by its own detention centres, which are rife with refugee protest and self-harm, that it cannot guarantee refugees will not be harmed.
Even worse, Bowen said on August 10 that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which has been heavily critical of the Malaysia swap and the proposal to restart offshore processing, would not be involved in assessing refugees on Manus Island.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott claimed the move to reopen a Pacific island detention centre proved Coalition policy “stopped the boats”. He has repeatedly said Gillard should “swallow her pride and … pick up the phone to the president of Nauru”.
But former PM Howard’s policy of locking refugees away from Australia’s public and media led to more than half of refugees “assessed” offshore being deported to a third country or back to their home countries during the scheme.
A report by the Edmund Rice Centre that followed up on those deported during the “Pacific solution” found many had been tortured, disappeared or killed.
This was blood on Australia’s hands. The Labor government is going down the same path now.
In PNG, National Capital District governor Powes Parkop has spoken out against any move by the PNG government to submit to Australia’s plans, saying it is immoral and illegal under PNG law.
“I think it’s not right that Australia keeps on passing this problem to its neighbouring country, in PNG, and Nauru and now Malaysia,” he told ABC’s The World Today on August 16.
“We are setting a bad precedent. Not only that, we are breaching the law and you know, that can open the floodgate for you know, police or migration here to put anybody into detention.
“It is not long lasting because we have done that before. We did in Manus Island, we did it in Nauru. They are still coming in boatloads.”
The “Malaysia solution” continues to face strong opposition in Australia. The High Court challenge led by 42 asylum seekers facing deportation to Malaysia will begin on August 22.
The federal Greens have also announced plans to initiate a parliamentary inquiry into the “Malaysia solution”.
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said parliament “already sent a very clear message to Gillard that the parliament does not like the idea of expelling vulnerable people, particularly children, to Malaysia.”
She said the Liberal-National Coalition would back the inquiry.