Back when he was immigration minister, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was famously gifted a trophy for stopping the boats. In the lead-up the recent federal election, Morrison gave out replicas to others. Those trophies look even more odd now with recent reports of several boats full of asylum seekers fleeing Sri Lanka for Australia.
However, since the election the situation on Manus Island and Nauru has become even more dire. Dozens of people have attempted suicide in the past few weeks and there were reports of guards beating up sick refugees in a hospital in Port Moresby on May 31.
A young Sudanese refugee, Fares, wrote a note before he attempted to hang himself that read: “I have lost my best years, my life has been destroyed, I can no longer continue.”
Refugees are forced to use local, under-resourced hospitals, leading to tensions between refugees and locals. As journalist, author and Kurdish refugee on Manus Island Behrouz Boochani tweeted on May 28: “Local authorities, especially the hospital staff are very angry with Australian Government and PIH [Pacific International Hospital] company, because they cannot accept any more people in the hospital. The situation is out of control and everyone is affected and traumatised by suicide attempts everywhere in Manus.”
Lack of medical care is just one of many ways people are suffering since the Australian government withdrew from Manus Island more than a year ago. In that time people have also struggled to access adequate food, water and secure accommodation.
Many asylum seekers had hoped a Labor government, having supported the medical evacuation law (Medivac) and agreed to accept New Zealand's offer to resettle 150 people a year, would mean an end to six years of torture. The election result killed that hope.
Boochani tweeted on May 20: “The federal election had a huge negative impact on people in Manus and Nauru. People have completely lost hope that the government will accept the New Zealand offer.”
Refugee rights activist groups in Melbourne and Sydney held snap rallies in solidarity with people on Manus Island and Nauru, to say we are not giving up.
Since the election Labor has reiterated its support for the government’s inhumane refugee policy. New Labor leader Anthony Albanese appointed Kristina Keneally as Shadow Home Affairs minister, who moved quickly to state Labor’s for support boat turnbacks and offshore detention. This is a departure from her position in 2015, when she wrote in the Guardian: “Instinctively I dislike the option of boat turnbacks. Towing people away from Australia when they are attempting a perilous journey in order to seek asylum smacks of cruelty. Such action dishonours our past commitments to compassionate welcome and violates our international treaty obligations. Also, I don’t want the Australian Labor party to ape the [Tony] Abbott government’s secretive and mean policies on asylum seekers and refugees.”
Keneally has now out-flanked Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton from the right, criticising him for stopping aerial patrols of Australia’s borders and allowing people to seek asylum via planes.
Her criticisms continue the narrative of discussing refugee policy as a security and not a humanitarian issue. They also attack a central pillar of a humanitarian asylum seeker policy: no matter how someone arrives, whether by boat, plane, car or on foot, they have a right to seek asylum.
There is merit in pointing out the hypocrisy of Australia accepting tens of thousands of people who arrive by plane without a fuss while feigning outrage over a few thousand people arriving by boat.
But in saying “Peter Dutton has allowed people smugglers to evolve their business model from using boats to using planes,” Keneally has accepted that militarised borders take precedence over a humanitarian solution.
For now, Labor is supporting Medevac while the Coalition government moves to repeal it.
Medevac has been criticised for being too bureaucratic and ineffective. Writing for the Saturday Paper, Boochani said: “Human rights organisations are following the same path the government has been carving out all these years regarding the treatment of sick refugees. This is nothing more than subjecting refugees to a bureaucratic game — a very drawn-out administrative process and complex structure.”
Since its implementation people have struggled to access Medevac. The legislation requires two doctors, who are present on the islands, to recommend a transfer. In addition, the bureaucratic process of filling out forms, gathering medical information and sending it to advocacy groups in Australia via slow and expensive internet is difficult. Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney has started a crowdfunding campaign to assist people going through the process.
The Guardian reported on May 23 that more than 40 people have been brought to Australia from Manus Island and Nauru since the Medevac legislation passed. But, only 14 were as a result of the legislation.
In the short term it is hard to see the situation improving. People are continuing to self harm on Manus Island and Nauru. Labor is talking about national security, not the inhumane treatment. Dutton is in Sri Lanka, no doubt exploring new ways the two countries can stop people fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka, following reports of boats being intercepted leaving the island.
Boochani is calling on us to keep fighting. On May 21, he tweeted: “As a witness to six years of torture and violence by the Australian government on Manus, I’m begging the people who still believe in human dignity to do whatever they can to help these broken souls on Manus and Nauru. The refugees’ mental health state has never been as bad before.”