By: Bruce Duncan
The death of one Iranian asylum seeker on Manus Island and the severe bashing of more than 60 others have shocked Australians. Getup and others rapidly organised candlelight protest vigils around the country.
Recent Australian governments have banished asylum seekers arriving by boat to remote islands and outsourced their care and processing to impoverished small neighbours totally without experience in managing such detention centres.
These ‘boat people’ took terrible risks to flee to Australia to claim our protection as refugees. Instead we have bundled them into detention centres, with little or no hope of being settled in Australia or any other country, with the possible exception of Papua New Guinea, with its daunting problems of poverty and law and order.
Much of public opinion supports the effort of the Abbott government to ‘stop the boats’, since no one wants to see more people drowned at sea. But church and community groups are protesting that this is not the way to do it. It is immoral to inflict needless pain and suffering on vulnerable people in order to send a message to other asylum seekers that they can expect the same cruel punishment. We treat convicted murderers better than the asylum seekers.
Our current detention policies are trashing our values of giving a fair go to people in extreme trouble. Australia has been a beacon of humanity and fair play since the Second World War, with about 45% of our population being born overseas or a child of a migrant. Despite our own failures, especially with our indigenous people, Australia has played a major role in promoting human rights internationally, and striven to exemplify those values in our own country.
Australia’s image and reputation is being damaged by the cruel treatment dished out to asylum seekers arriving by boat.
For Christians and other religious groups especially, the refugee policies violate the core biblical value of concern for people in distress. The Gospel of Matthew insists that God identifies intensely with such people. When facing God at the Last Judgment, people ask ‘when did we see you hungry, naked, in prison?’, and God answers: that ‘was Me’ you saw.
Church and refugee advocates have undoubtedly been in close discussions with members of the Abbott government, but the government appears determined. Currently church groups are discussing starting a national campaign of ringing their church bells every Sunday as a protest.
The tragedy is, there are realistic alternatives, especially by reviving the Bali Process to set up regional processing centres for asylum seekers and refugees, as existed after the Vietnam War with such success.
The former First Assistant Secretary of the Refugee, Humanitarian and International Division in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship from 2007 to 2010, Arja Keshi-Nummi, wrote in a blog of John Menadue on 25 February that the proposal in 2012 to set up a processing centre in Malaysia could well have worked, but that the Abbott Opposition did not want the Labor government to succeed in stopping the boats.
Keshi-Nummi is calling on the Abbott government to revisit the Malaysia arrangement as more humane and supported by the UNHCR, instead of exporting problems to PNG, Nauru or even Cambodia which cannot manage such issues.
He reminds the political parties how the Fraser and Hawke governments adopted a bi-partisan approach to provide a lasting and humane solution to the Vietnamese exodus. He writes that only a reasoned bi-partisan approach can provide stable solutions to processing or resettling refugees in our part of the world.
How do our political parties move out of this toxic polarisation? It will take inspired leadership, and a shift in public opinion that things have gone too far down the Manus Island and Nauru track.