Ten years too long: End offshore detention

July 14, 2023
Protesting for permanent visas in front of Parliament House. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Boat turn-backs. Offshore Detention. Refusal to settle groups of refugees in Australia. This triad is the 10-year-long contemporary White Australia policy of governments, Labor and Coalition.

Refugees and their supporters will be organising public events calling for an end to that policy in the week of July 19. They will be calling for an end to offshore detention and ensuring all asylum seekers who have reached Australia are offered permanent settlement.

Refugees sailing from Sri Lanka to Australian waters this year are now subject to “refoulment” — being returned to their country of persecution.

The now-emptied prison camp on Nauru is maintained at up to $350 million a year; Labor is retaining the infrastructure for an offshore detention system.

Of the more than 3000 refugees sent to offshore detention when former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced on July 19, 2013, that “asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia”, more than 1200 are still without a place to call home.

The remainder either settled in other countries, or fell into such despair in detention that they accepted refoulment.

There is no future permanent settlement plan for at least 500 of these people.

Most of these 1200 are now in Australia on short-term bridging visas and are being pressured by the Department of Home Affairs to leave the country.

About 80 people, however, are still being held in Papua New Guinea (PNG). More than that, having previously imprisoned them on Manus Island, the federal government has now dropped all support for them: they are being supported by local churches and activists.

Behrouz Boochani, the Kurdish-Iranian journalist and prize winning author who escaped PNG by getting to New Zealand, recently said: “Many lives have been damaged, many families separated, and now Australia has abandoned them. Nothing has been achieved. Nothing but the creation of a tragedy and the mental and physical damage to hundreds of people. Humanitarian and democratic values have been undermined.”

Yet these are not all the people who have lost, more or less, a decade of their lives as a result of bipartisan cruelty.

Nearly 10,000 people who arrived in Australia before 2013 are either:

• Still waiting for a decision about their refugee status. Their claims are being processed under the “Fast Track” system which is slow and had led to many pursuing costly court appeals; or

• Have been denied refugee status by a system Labor admits is flawed but won’t replace; many of whom are also being denied access to health care, education, social security payments and the right to work and are therefore having to rely on charity to live; or

• Have lost their visas due to “bad character”, often a malign insult based on a minor legal infraction.

About 14,000 refugees are stranded in Indonesia, unable to come to Australia due to restricted re-settlement processes. This includes a “never settle” ban, which covers refugees in Indonesia who were not registered with the United Nation’s refugee agency by June 30, 2014.

Victorian Labor for Refugees has called on the federal government to grant those who have been in offshore detention an “amnesty”, the intention being to remove the barriers to permanent residency.

But the call for an amnesty could be seen as presuming an “offence” — illegal arrival — had happened. People arriving by boat have done nothing illegal, as Australia’s signature on the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees underscores.

The amnesty proponents seem to believe Anthony Albanese’s government wants to do what’s right, and so will accept the reasons for allowing permanent settlement.

But just how little has changed on refugee policy since 2001 should indicate that is not true and that the refugee rights movement needs to try to make the government steer a different course.

Marches, vigils, delegations and demonstrations being held in coming days will mark a decade of the newest phase of Labor-Coalition-Labor White Australia. They are aimed at bringing the inhumane refugee policy to an end.

No one can make this happen but ourselves. Rural Australians for Refugees works to ensure this message is being heard beyond the capital cities, with actions planned in Alexandra, Armidale, Bendigo and Cairns.

By joining the rallies in the capital cities you will be helping add to the pressure for the fair processing of refugee claims, followed by the safe resettlement for refugees with permanent visas.

[Jonathan Strauss is the National President of Rural Australians for Refugees and a Socialist Alliance member.]

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