The Pacific Solution is No Solution

I recently had the opportunity to speak at a public forum, in Geelong Victoria, on Labor Party refugee policy and humane alternatives for refugees and asylum seekers.  The other speakers were Richard Marles (Shadow Immigration and Border Protection Minister),  Christine Couzens (Labor Candidate for Geelong, Labor for Refugees) and Rod Mackenzie (Former President Legislative Council Victoria).

I have had some requests for my speech notes, so I thought I would publish them here.

Deterrence picIn 1939 the St. Louis steamed out of Hamburg, with 937 Jews on board, desperately attempting to flee from Nazi persecution.  The ship was bound for Cuba.  Just days earlier, Cuba had passed a decree which called for all arrivals to have a valid visa.   No-one on board had a chance to obtain one.

The ship was not permitted to dock in Havana and was ordered to leave peacefully or else be forced out by the Cuban navy.  The St. Louis headed for Florida, but the Immigration Office in Miami announced that under no circumstances would the passengers be allowed to set foot on US soil.  Canada, and the various South American countries which were approached, would not offer protection either.   Eventually, the only option was to turn back to Europe. Some of the passengers took their own lives, in preference to being faced with return to Germany.   Negotiations saw Britain make some places available but the bulk of the passengers were taken to Belgium, France and the Netherlands.  When those countries were invaded by the Nazis, most were sent to the extermination camps.

The very reason the UN Refugee Convention was written, was to prevent situations like the St. Louis from ever reoccurring.   The world said, “Never again must we prevent people from seeking safety from persecution.”  And Australia agreed, and signed that Convention.

The Convention states that if someone has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion, then they can leave the country of persecution, and enter another country in order to seek asylum. Signatory countries agree not to impose penalties on those who arrive without passports or visas.

Today, according to the latest UNHCR statistics, there are more than 51 million refugees and displaced people in the world.  This number is the highest it has been since the end of World War II.  86% of refugees were hosted in developing countries in 2013.  Ethiopia hosted over 400,000 refugees, Kenya hosted over 500,000 and Jordan hosted over 600,000.  Meanwhile, Australia spent billions of dollars deterring and preventing people from seeking asylum here, locking many up indefinitely in terrible conditions, conditions condemned by the UN and Amnesty International, because they arrived without visas.  And our politicians continue to conspire to find new and creative ways to change our Migration Act so that it becomes less and less consistent with our obligations under the Refugee Convention.

The Refugee Convention does not prescribe a particular method of arrival for asylum seekers.  The only right method is to leave, to enter and to ask.  While getting in a fishing boat and travelling across the Indian Ocean or the Timor Sea is a dangerous method of seeking asylum, it is not a ‘wrong method’ according to the Refugee Convention.

The Labor Party National Platform says this: “Labor is a party of human rights. Labor believes in a just and tolerant society that fully protects the rights and freedoms of all people in Australia.  Labor supports the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international treaties to which we are a signatory.”

I want to take a moment to commend the Labor Party for continuing to oppose Temporary Protection Visas for refugees.   As those who knew Leo Seemanpillia (a Tamil asylum seeker living in Geelong who self-immolated in moments of despair) will attest, ongoing short-term visas keep people suspended in statelessness and uncertainty, ever fearful of being returned.  People remain indefinitely separated from their closest family members who may also be facing unspeakable terror in their homelands.  Unity of the Family is a guiding principle of the Refugee Convention.   Temporary Protection is a form of psychological torture.  The strong Labor stance against Temporary Protection is to be applauded.

However, I know that I speak for many when I say that we were bitterly disappointed when the Labor Caucus voted to persist with its commitment to offshore detention.

Richard Marles said in a recent ABC radio interview that the PNG Solution is a way of “taking Australia off the table” for asylum seekers arriving by boat.   It is not possible to “take Australia off the table” without flying in the face of our obligations under international law.

Cries from Labor, that the Abbott Government is not running offshore detention centres humanely and to standard, ring hollow when it was the Labor Party which reopened them for the purpose of deterring people from seeking asylum.  Let’s be clear. The only way for detention centres to operate as a deterrent, is if the conditions in them are more horrific than the horrors people are fleeing.  While the Abbott Government appears to be doing its very best to achieve that, the idea of deterrence, by offshore detention, was actually reintroduced by the Labor Party.

Sydney Morning Herald writer, Waleed Aly, put it well when he wrote this: “Occasionally you have to pause to take stock of just how bizarre Australia’s asylum seeker debate has become. In summary, it works like this: the Coalition implements a policy that is mostly Labor’s while pretending it is doing something so uniquely tough that no one else could possibly be so courageous. Labor, meanwhile, objects because that’s what oppositions do, while trying delicately to avoid criticising the very thing it has unleashed.”

I quote from Richard Marles’ National Press Club address: “There is no doubt that the values that drive modern Labor are compassion, fairness and generosity.  A fundamental maxim that we, as a country, should not harm people.”

There is no compassion, fairness or generosity in making conditions dreadful enough to deter people from seeking asylum by boat.  People ARE being harmed in our offshore detention centres.

Reza Barati was beaten to death by those paid to protect him, on Manus Island.  Another man had his throat slit, another received serious head injuries, and yet another lost his eye. Such is the breakdown in the mental health of detainees, that self-harm, even among children, is prevalent in offshore detention.  Detention centre staff must carry Hoffmann Knives at all times, so that they can quickly respond to the frequent attempted hangings. Reports by doctors and health professionals have identified that medical care is totally inadequate. The catch cry of ‘saving lives at sea’ rings hollow when people’s lives are at risk within the detention centres Australia pays for.  It rings hollow when safe refuge for those fleeing torture and execution is “taken off the table”.

Both Liberal and Labor parties are in the business of demonising People Smugglers.   Sir Nicholas Winton, Oskar Schindler, Chiune Sugihara and Raoul Wallenberg were all people smugglers.  In various ways they broke rules, forged documents, took money and bribed officials.  Yet they were hailed as heroes.  The St. Louis’ captain, Gustav Schroder, had a street named after him.  He was awarded an ‘Order of Merit’ and honoured with the title of “Righteous among the Nations”.

Sometimes enlisting the assistance of a people smuggler is the only option for survival.  Several friends of mine experienced violence and torture at the hands of their own governments due to to their people group, their religion or their sexuality.  They are only alive today, because their families engaged people smugglers to whisk them away to safety.

I can’t help but wonder what Australia’s refugee policies would be if our nation wasn’t conveniently surrounded by the water we use as an excuse to avoid our obligations under international law.

Australia obviously can’t take all 51 million of the world’s refugees.  We can, however, use the $3 billion per year we are currently spending on offshore detention, a whole lot more wisely:

  • We could increase our annual refugee intake. It is currently 13,750 per year. It would not be unreasonable for Australia to resettle 30,000 people a year given our position as Number 2 on the World Human Development Index and Number 10 globally for GDP per capita. Our migration intake from other avenues could be adjusted accordingly.
  • We could establish a real and timely process, in collaboration with the UNHCR, for resettling refugees from the transit countries in our region, greatly reducing the need for people to make the dangerous journey in smugglers’ boats in the first place. The entire UNHCR processing budget is $167 million. Imagine what could be achieved with an extra billion dollars or so in our region.
  • Treat those who have already attempted to arrive here, with humanity and decency onshore and according to our obligations under international law. Instead of spending over $400,000 per year per asylum seeker on inhumane offshore detention, we could spend less than $30,000 a year allowing each person to live in the community while their claims for asylum were processed. (Federal Audit Report).  If work rights were awarded, the figure would be further reduced and money would be put back into the Australian economy.   Australian jobs would be created in terms of caseworkers and administration staff.
  • This would be consistent with the Labor Party National Platform which says : “Australia can be a nation in which everybody has opportunity to shape their own lives, develop their potential and enjoy the rewards of hard work. Labor believes that background and privilege should not determine success in life.”
  • If we were serious about saving lives at sea, we would, like Italy, invest in Navy and Coastguard resources to provide safe passage for anyone who does arrive on an asylum-seeking boat, instead of spending obscene amounts of money on single-use, orange, enclosed life boats and secret turn back operations which actually increase the chance of drowning.

Some final words from Julian Burnside QC:

“A just society does not ignore the needs of the powerless, voiceless minority. A just society does not turn its back on damaged human beings who ask for help…. Our treatment of refugees, here and in Nauru and Manus Island, is a scandal that will haunt us for decades.  The human misery we have inflicted on thousands who have arrived looking for help is incalculable.  Our complete abdication of moral responsibility – leave aside our legal responsibility under international conventions – is reprehensible beyond words.”   (Watching Brief, 2007)