Arja Keski-Nummi.

The Detention Center on the west side of Christmas Island, Australia, accommodates asylum seekers to Australia. The facility opened in 2006 after a wave of boat arrivals from Asia.
Australian Detention Center, David Stanley, flickr cc.

The PNG Supreme Court decision has again thrown into stark relief the bankrupt nature of Australia’s asylum policy, and the disingenuous way in which both sides justify their cynical and inhumane policies with trite slogans such as ‘saving lives’ and ‘not starting up the people smuggling business’.

People working with asylum seekers, who have processed and resettled refuges from within and outside of Australia have all urged Australian political parties to find a way to return to a bipartisan policy based on treating all people with dignity and common human decency, even if, in the end, they are not found to be refugees. But this has fallen on deaf ears.

Despite many experienced commentators in the past day offering reasonable policy advice and approach, it is clear from the statements of both parties that they will not take such advice.

The scene has been set. Cynical political calculations ahead of a July election trump good policy or treating people humanely. Indeed, one could argue that there is a defacto bipartisan policy – one based on cruelty, and selfishly inward-looking in its intent.

Asylum policy does not change many votes. Handling the economy, education, health, and industrial relations does. However, the Government knows it does it little harm to raise the spectre of uncontrolled boats. Equally, the Opposition is stuck in defence of its decision to reopen offshore processing centres, and then, in the heat of an election campaign in 2013, to extend that to no resettlement in Australia.

This seismic shift in Australia’s asylum policies is deeply troubling, as is its abrogation of any moral responsibility towards people who have reached its territory. It is not clear that this genie can easily be put back into the lamp.

This unseemly debate sits uncomfortably with anyone who actually looks outward – we live in an interconnected world. More than ever, people are on the move because of diminishing economic opportunities, civil war and other conflicts, environmental degradation and exploitation, and a combination of all of these factors in any one cohort.

We should not be squabbling over 800 men stuck on Manus, shifting the responsibility to PNG, and offering to throw money in their direction to make the problem go away. There are perfectly reasonable and common-sense approaches to resolving the status of all those on Manus. The Howard government did just this with the remaining Nauru population in 2005‑2006.

There are over 50 million displaced people globally. Australia’s issues with asylum seekers does not amount to a hill of beans. So focused are we on Manus and Nauru that we have not yet honoured our small commitment to resettling Syrian refugees from the Middle East.

Both parties could make a difference by agreeing to take a reasonable bipartisan approach, working to resettle people found to be refugees, and building a strong regional cooperation framework, thus taking the politics out of an issue that demeans us all.

But this will not happen, because both major parties are focused on narrow, immediate political gain.


Arja Keski-Nummi was formerly First Assistant Secretary in the Department of Immigration & Citizenship, with primary responsibility in the field of humanitarian and refugee programs.

Reprinted from the blog of John Menadue.

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