Rudd’s refugee betrayal sparks protests

Hundreds protest Rudd's refugee policy in Sydney on July 20. Photo: Peter Boyle

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s astounding announcement that all asylum seeker boat arrivals “from now on” would never be resettled in Australia and subject to a rigged offshore dumping deal with the Papua New Guinea government has shocked many.

Immigration minister Tony Burke also confirmed the Manus Island detention camp would be expanded to hold up to 3000 detainees, and would be brought “back up to standard” to again house women and children.

There would be no cap on the number of people that can be sent there. There are few details yet of how people subject to the new rules will be processed and resettled.

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Greens leader Christine Milne says the plan “leap frogs” Liberal leader Tony Abbott in terms of right-wing anti-refugee policy.

Abbott himself had little to say. At a press conference after Rudd’s announcement Abbott said he “welcomed” the plan, but claimed it “would not work with Mr Rudd in charge”.

He said Australians should trust the party that was “the original and the best” at “stopping the boats”.

Rudd’s proposal has been universally condemned by refugee and human rights advocates across Australia and in PNG. Prominent refugee lawyer David Manne said the “PNG solution … marks a fundamental repudiation of Australia commitment to protect refugees from expulsion dangers elsewhere”.

He said that PNG has signed the refugee convention, but it had opted out of key commitments to provide freedom of movement, education, housing or employment. He said the country’s compliance in practice is “dangerously weak and inadequate”.

“All the independent evidence points to PNG being, sadly, very unsafe and also a place where there is widespread and pervasive violence, including against women, and serious and ongoing daily human rights abuse throughout the country.”

Advocacy group Children Out of Detention said there were too many unanswered questions: “Children under seven and pregnant women cannot be sent there because of malarial issues — where will these people go? Will families be separated? … What child protection models will be in place? Will Australia have any oversight?”

Geelong Trades Hall secretary Tim Gooden, speaking at a protest against Rudd's plan in Melbourne on July 20, said: "This is an amazingly cruel government. If trade unions are not prepared to take a stand on this issue, they should not call themselves unions."

Fremantle councillor Sam Wainwright, who is contesting the federal election in the seat of Fremantle for the Socialist Alliance, said the plan was a “further abandonment” of the refugee convention, and “a betrayal of human rights in Australia”. He said that, ultimately, it will do little to stem the arrival of asylum seekers.

This is obvious because, in effect, Australia’s withdrawal from the principles and obligations of the convention has already taken place and refugees already face harsh treatment. Refugees are right now being deported back to danger, discriminated against based on race and religion, arbitrarily detained, denied work and education rights, and made to rot in a legal limbo.

The Australian parliament’s excision of the continent from its own migration zone means that refugees arriving by boat do not have access to the rights and protection granted under the convention. They are at the mercy of a unilateral and an ever more brutal processing system, which offers years of misery, separates families and even stoops to tormenting children and teenagers.

That’s even if they make the journey at all. Two more boats that capsized and killed nine and four people respectively this week became victim to a border patrol system that systematically denies rescue to refugee boats.

Meanwhile, lawyers have repeatedly labelled the Manus Island and Nauru detention camps illegal and in violation of international law. Rudd’s anticipated announcement of the expansion of the Manus Island detention camp — to hold up to 3000 people — shows he is as willing as any former leader to flout this reality.

All of this is in contravention of the international laws to which Australia is a party. None of it has any bearing on the decisions of asylum seekers and refugees who seek safety — people will come despite how harsh Australia’s or PNG’s refugee systems are.

This is a new level of persecuting and locking out refugees. But slamming the door on all refugees arriving by boat will not stop them coming, because it offers no alternative and does nothing to address the reasons they flee in the first place.