Bruce Duncan. 

peril on the sea
A Cry for Those in Peril on the Sea, Photo Unit, flickr cc

Against the advice from Save the Children, which is under contract to provide welfare services on Nauru, a baby girl of five months named Asha was transferred back to Nauru in early June. She was one of ten babies, born after 4 December 2014, transferred despite advice of Save the Children, which considered the facilities poor and too risky for babies. Transfield Services gave a reduced risk assessment.

Baby Asha soon developed gastroenteritis. Her parents are in shock and despair, and at risk of self-harm. They had been receiving trauma counselling and medical treatment in Melbourne. Before removal from Melbourne very early in the morning, they were restrained with cable ties, and the atmosphere in the detention centre was highly charged.

Alarmed about the “systemic failure” and inhumane treatment on PNG’s Manus Island and Nauru, Caz Coleman, a former advisor to the government has called for these centres to be closed, and asylum seekers to be brought back to Australia to process their claims. She emphasises the need, instead, for regional agreements in South-East Asia to manage the flow and resettlement of asylum seekers, and for increased emphasis to be placed on eliminating the causes of refugee movements by improving security and living standards in source countries.

Until November 2014, Caz Coleman was a member of the Minister’s Council on Asylum Seekers and Detention for the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, and previously Scott Morrison and Labor ministers before them. She was contracted to the Salvation Army in early 2013 as transitional contract manager for the centre on Nauru. She later moved to be director of the Melaleuca Refugee Centre in Darwin. It provides services for resettlement and healing of refugee survivors of torture and trauma, their families, and the community.

still human
Amnesty International Refugee Day Rally-9, Jason, flickr cc

According to figures of 30 April 2015, there are 971 people detained on Manus Island, and on Nauru a further 677, including 95 children, at a cost of $475,000 for each person each year. In onshore detention, there are 1613 people, of whom 127 are children. A further 1092 children are in community detention arrangements. In addition, there are 27,675 people on Bridging Visa E, including 3004 children. People on Bridging Visa E have no work rights and limited support from the government.

There is no doubt that Australia had to dissuade asylum seekers from making the hazardous boat journey to Australia. Between 2008 and 2013, some 862 people are thought to have died at sea trying to reach Australia. In 2013, some 20,719 asylum seekers arrived by boat, and numbers were likely to increase further, becoming a major problem for Australia politically.

The Labor government set up in 2012 an Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, consisting of Paris Aristotle, Professor Michael L’Estrange, and Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, which reported in August 2012. The government adopted part of the panel’s recommendations, and reopened offshore processing centres where asylum seekers could receive health and security checks, and be resettled overseas, not in Australia.

The Abbott government later increased the harshness of its policies, so that the offshore centres were clearly seen as a very severe deterrent. In this, it was effective. The numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat dropped to 164 in 2014, although numbers had already been declining under Labor.

Coleman was not pleased with opening these offshore centres, but thought they could have worked if the rest of the proposals had been put in place, particularly developing a comprehensive regional framework. Instead, particularly under the Coalition government, the emphasis has been on demonstrating cruel and harsh policies as a deterrent.

Nauru: ‘rogue state’

australian aid
Relief supplies for Solomon Islands, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, flickr cc

In addition to the huge expense of operating the offshore centres, there has been serious abuse and mismanagement on Manus Island and Nauru.

The Australian who served as Nauru’s sole magistrate, Peter Law, described it as a ‘rogue state’, with tight government control over the media. For political reasons, Law was sacked in January 2014, and deported by the President Baron Waqa. When Nauru’s Chief Justice, Geoffrey Eames issued an injunction barring the deportation, his own visa was cancelled. The legal process is in disarray.

Many health experts have protested about serious damage to the mental health of asylum seekers. The former chief psychiatrist for Australian’s detention centres, Peter Young, said in August 2014 that the detention environment was deliberately inflicting serious harm on vulnerable people.

A whistleblower, former employee of Save the Children, Viktoria Vibhakar, testified to the Nauru Senate enquiry in June 2015 about assaults against minors, which the Department of Immigration had long known about but not acted on. Vibhakar said children as young as two have been terribly abused. But Nauru has little capacity properly to investigate allegations of assault and abuse. Meanwhile, Australia is expected to give aid to Nauru of $25.9 million in 2015-16.

What is the response of the Australian government? With the support of Labor, in early June, the government legislated a two-year jail term for unauthorised disclosures, with no public interest exemption. The legislation takes effect from July, and will prevent doctors or advocates for asylum seemers speaking out about abuses on Nauru or Manus Island. Do the phrases ‘cover-up’ or ‘something to hide’ come to mind?

Australia’s so-called ‘enhanced screening’ process no longer asks asylum seekers if they have been tortured or so threatened. According to Professor Louise Newman, former member of the Immigration Health Advisory Group, this was a political decision to avoid the moral responsibility of responding to the claims of torture and trauma.

Italy’s humane policies

Australia has the harshest detention regime for asylum seekers arriving by boat of any developed country in the world. Though it has difficulties of its own and has suffered acutely from the effects of the financial crisis, Italy offers a far more humane example than Australia of how to manage asylum seekers.

Almost 220,000 people migrated by boat to Europe in 2014, though about 3000 died crossing the Mediterranean. From January to October, Italian rescue operations had saved 160,000 at sea, including 12,000 unaccompanied minors. Few of these migrants are held in detention. In 2013, only 6000 migrants were detained, and of these only 150 were asylum seekers. Children are almost never detained, unless they request it and a juvenile judge approves.

As of 25 November 2014, the maximum time for detention in Italy was 90 days, the average time being 38 days. In Australia, by contrast, practically all asylum seekers are placed in detention indefinitely, including women and children.

It Italy, asylum seekers are placed in reception centres, with access to legal services, and are provided with basic accommodation and services while their claims are processed; some voluntarily remain longer. Unaccompanied minors are entitled to automatic residence permits, and can access education, healthcare, accommodation, and guardianship.

Mr Abbott was recently spruiking Australia’s ‘turn back the boats’ policy as an example for Europe, but the European Union has rejected such an approach as violating the European Convention on Human Rights. European nations are haunted by the memories of some countries during the Nazi period refusing to accept refugees, and are determined not to let that happen again.

Proposals for a regional solution

Australia joined an agreement with 45 countries in the Asia-Pacific area and international organisations to help manage the flow of refugees, called the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons, and Related Transnational Crime. This ‘Bali Process’ offers the possibility of setting up a coordinated way of processing refugees, with resettlement in host or third countries.

When Australia was asked if we would receive some of the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, Mr Abbott famously replied in June 2015, “Nope, nope, nope… If you want a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door”. This is hardly the way to engage constructively with our neighbours, nor do claims that Australian vessels paid people smugglers at sea to take asylum seekers to Indonesia.

The UNHCR has proposed a ten-point plan for countries to respond to the immediate needs of asylum seekers, including rescue, safe disembarkation, food, and medical care, along with quick processing.

The Refugee Council of Australia has also called for Australia to work more closely with our neighbours, agreeing on standards for determining refugee status, and providing humane alternatives for detaining asylum seekers. The Refugee Council urged a shift of emphasis to improving the social and economic circumstances in source countries so that people are not forced into desperate sea voyages.

Aussie aid & conditions in source countries of refugees

During the 2013 election, the Coalition promised to increase aid spending on overseas aid to 0.5% GNI, but immediately government began slashing it. Instead of maintaining our commitment to overseas aid in the global effort to eliminate hunger and lift living standards, the Abbott government has savagely cut overseas aid by $11.3 billion. This will reduce it to $4 billion, the lowest level on record, as a percentage of our Gross National Income by 2016-17, 0.22%. With other developed countries, Australia committed in 1970 to lift its level of aid to 0.7% of GNI.

In addition, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has announced that military and police deployments in peacekeeping or overseas disaster areas will also now be counted as overseas aid. It is not clear if the 400 personnel in Iraq will be counted as part of our aid budget. Aid experts are also complaining of much reduced transparency in how aid is spent.

Exempted from the cuts to overseas aid were of course Papua New Guinea, Nauru, and Cambodia (which has received the four transferees from Nauru). In addition to its $40 million in aid, Cambodia is receiving $15 million from Australia to house and settle the four transferees for one year.

The toxic logic of deterrence

The Abbott government has followed the toxic logic of deterrence to extremes – the systemic abuse of the fundamental human rights of thousands of asylum seekers, and damaging efforts to develop a regional framework for processing asylum seekers.

As Francis asked soon after becoming pope, on Lampedusa Island ( south of Italy where thousands of asylum seekers have been rescued : have we anaesthetised our hearts so that we can no longer empathise with the suffering of others in distress, and can we no longer weep for our indifference to their plight, and for our cruelty?

For a full treatment of asylum seeker issues, see John Menadue’s excellent blog. Menadue was Secretary of the Department of Immigration & Ethnic Affairs 1980-1983.
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