How has it come to this, that the Australian government is poised to send back 37 babies, 54 children, and their families – 267 in all – into the traumatic conditions of Nauru?
Only a few years ago, many Australians would have considered it inconceivable that our governments should impose such shocking treatment on people who fled to our country seeking asylum as refugees.
What has brought matters to a head is the government’s cynical manipulation of the law to prevent the High Court of Australia ruling in favour of a Bangladeshi woman, who, because of complications in her pregnancy, was brought in 2014 to Australia from detention in Nauru. She brought an action in the High Court to prevent her being returned to Nauru.
The government responded by rushing new legislation through both houses of parliament on 24 and 25 June 2015, changing the migration act to justify any action taken by the government to support its regional processing policies. The law came into force on 30 June 2015, but was backdated to take effect from 18 August 2012. Only one judge, Justice Gordon, dissented from the judgement of the other six judges of the High Court.
As Professor George Williams wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald on 3 February, by sending people back to Nauru, Australia was washing it hands of responsibility. “There is no requirement that children are well-treated or that their best interests are safeguarded. There is also no need for asylum seekers to be treated fairly, such as by having their claims promptly and properly assessed.”
Waleed Aly, in the Age of 5 February, was trenchant. “Nauru has become a screen behind which we hide our own culpability; its sovereignty a charade, really, a sort of legal fiction we use to obscure the consequences of our own policy.” We had descended into a “world of make-believe” and become adept at “lying to ourselves”.
The issue has provoked a crisis of conscience among many people, including politicians and decision-makers, about where we have been led by the logic of deterrence of asylum seekers. Undoubtedly, many politicians are conflicted about the dilemma they face. Labor member for Fremantle and a former lawyer at the United Nations, Melissa Parke, insisted that Australia’s laws were “certainly a serious violation of our international legal obligations, and are utterly repugnant in a moral sense”.
On the one hand, we all want to prevent asylum seekers arriving in boats, resulting in hundreds of people drowning at sea. To stop the boats, Australia established the deterrent of indefinite detention in harsh and remote Nauru or Manus Island.
On the other hand, church, human rights, and medical authorities are protesting vigorously that our policies are driving hundreds of detainees into mental illness, especially children. It is unprecedented that Fairfax papers have given their early February front pages to photos of many babies about to be sent back into detention with their mothers or families.
Growing protests against treatment of asylum seekers
Various Anglican and Uniting churches have invoked the ancient right of sanctuary to prevent these children being carted back to Nauru, an island of 10,000 people, with a barely functioning government, weak policing, and very limited resources. Church leaders harbouring these asylum seekers could themselves face arrest.
Significant protest marches and meetings have been held in cities throughout Australia, attended by many mainstream voters, as well as by church and community groups. Mums and dads are undoubtedly moved by the thought of the harm such detention in Nauru conditions would do to their own children.
Morally, it is repugnant to punish current detainees on Manus Island and Nauru in order to deter other asylum seekers who might think of arriving by boat, by demonstrating how harshly they will be treated in indefinite detention with no prospect of settlement in Australia.
New Zealand offered in February 2013 to take 150 of the asylum seekers each year for three years, but Australia turned down the offer lest the refugees gain NZ citizenship after five years’ residence, and then enter Australia. With the migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East, few other countries will accept them. A handful has gone to Cambodia at a cost to our government of $55 million, and Kyrgyzstan and the Philippines have also been approached. A small number of refugees has tried to settle in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Most asylum seekers are in despair, however, and face years in detention.
What is to be done?
Many people are appealing to Mr Turnbull that the limited numbers of newborns and their families can be allowed to remain in Australia without reviving the boat arrivals. Church, community, academic, and medical groups have been particularly prominent.
In Melbourne, Bishop Vincent Long, spokesman for the Australian Catholics bishops and a former refugee himself, urged Prime Minister Turnbull and Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, to show compassion and stop the harm to these people. He called on the government to “ensure that no child is subject to an unsafe and harmful environment”, and that no one be returned to face “physical, psychological and sexual violence and harm”. He said the Catholic Church opposed mandatory and offshore detention. Thirty years ago, Long set out from Vietnam, drifting at sea for seven days before spending 16 months in a refugee camp.
Robert Manne in The Monthly also appealed to Mr Turnbull. “The idea that allowing a few children out of detention in Australia would act as an international signal that would see the return of the people smuggling trade was insane.”
Fr Frank Brennan, in Eureka Street, argued that turning back the boats has stopped the arrival of unauthorised asylum seekers; the harsh deterrent policies of Nauru and Manus Island were no longer needed, and hence could be closed. Most immediately, the refugee children in Australia should be allowed to remain here with their families, he wrote.
One of Australia’s most respected journalists, Michelle Grattan, saw some hope in Mr Turnbull’s cautious response that each case needed to be considered individually, and that he wouldn’t “send children back into harm’s way”.
Public opinion on these most vulnerable of refugees has shifted decisively, as indicated by the latest appeals from state and territory government leaders in Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, and the ACT. It is no longer seen as a party-political issue, but as a matter of human decency. All eyes will now be on Prime Minister Turnbull to recast our policies on refugees and asylum seekers and end this moral blight on the conscience of our country.