Abandoning West Papua


Proposed laws announced last week by the Minister for Immigration, Amanda Vanstone, would excise the entire coastline from the legal entity known as ‘Australia’ for the purposes of processing asylum applications from West Papuan refugees. In effect, we would no longer be a land ‘girt by sea’, but a land girt by a mean and tricky fiction — a virtual blank that would allow officers of DIMIA to do things to people on distant islands that we wouldn’t allow them to do in Australia.

These proposed laws are not just a surreal joke, they run counter to all the positive changes which Vanstone’s Department is currently implementing in the wake of the reforms initiated last year by Petro Georgiou, Malcolm Turnbull and others, as well as the Palmer and Comrie Reports into the dysfunctional culture at DIMIA. The laws make a mockery of the recent improvements in the treatment of detainees supposedly undertaken by Vanstone, and they turn the clock back to a time which most Australians believed we had finally left behind.

It is evident from the Minister’s announcement that we will even see a return to children in detention. Whether they are let out during the day is not really the point.

Both the response of the Opposition Parties and the unease expressed by a significant but small group within the Coalition reflect a deep-seated concern about what the effects of the proposed changes will mean in practice.

The laws which the Government seeks to put in place, coupled with various administrative arrangements cutting across a number of portfolios, raise the prospect of breaches of international law and violations of our international obligations. As bad as the Tampa laws were they concerned ‘secondary movers’ — refugees who had fled from their homelands and had arrived in places like Malaysia and Indonesia before attempting to land in Australia. West Papuan refugees, on the other hand, are fleeing directly from a country of persecution and are in a qualitatively different position.

The Australian Navy will be instructed to intercept West Papuans who arrive in our territorial waters and transfer them to Nauru or Manus Island. If the Navy also assists Indonesian forces to turn refugees back in any way, either directly or by providing intelligence, information or identifying boats for them, then this will contravene Article 33 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (‘The Refugees Convention’).

Whatever the rules of engagement, there is a very clear risk in returning asylum seekers to a country where their lives and freedoms are threatened unless, of course, we believe that the only West Papuans threatened are the 42 already given asylum by Australia. As with ‘Children Overboard’ and the use of the military during the Tampa crisis, our naval personnel will again be placed in extremely difficult moral and legal situations with the same risk of sinking morale as happened before.

If West Papuan asylum seekers are transferred to Nauru or Manus Island, they will be denied the assistance in applying for asylum that they could have expected on Australian territory. They will simply be assessed by Australian officials, whose decisions will not be subject to independent scrutiny. There is, therefore, a strong case for saying Vanstone’s proposals constitute a penalty on account of illegal entry and thus violate Article 31 of The Refugees Convention.

This is clearly a policy of deterrence (acknowledged by Vanstone and Howard) that discriminates against unauthorised arrivals from a particular country — Indonesia — and threatens to place them in a detention situation with all the proven, destructive, long-term mental and physical consequences. The Government, not so long ago, brought all but two of the remaining 27 Tampa asylum seekers to Australia after accepting the expert opinion of specialist health professionals about these consequences of long-term detention.

If, after processing, the West Papuans are found to be bona fide refugees, Australia will accept no obligation to do anything other than see whether a ‘third’ country will take them. They will be left in limbo indefinitely again, with the destructive effects this entails: a repetition of the worst excesses of a detention regime which was universally condemned and was being wound-back.

There is even confusion within the Government about what constitutes a ‘third’ country, Howard suggesting that, because the processing would happen in Nauru or Manus Island (PNG), then Australia could be that ‘third’ country. So, we have the absurd situation where, after spending millions of dollars on this extended ‘Pacific Solution’, there is the chance that the refugees could find themselves in Australia after all.

That the Howard Government has caved in to external pressure is clear. But ironically, what they propose is apparently still not good enough for the Indonesians. They want more.

Appeasement never works. Indeed, in this case, it fosters and nourishes the worst aspects of Indonesian nationalist sentiment and presents the world with a picture of an Australia that is easily intimidated and manipulated.

All this at the expense of people who are fleeing well-documented persecution — persecution that will not be ameliorated, but rather encouraged, by the policy and laws which the Howard Government is trying to implement.

It is vital to our national interest and our ethical values as a democratic country that we do not kowtow to this external pressure. We cannot compromise our commitment to protecting the human rights of vulnerable people who are genuinely fleeing persecution. As an international citizen, Australia will not be respected for repudiating those values.

We should be making it known to Indonesia that we consider it vital to peace and stability in the region that they put their own house in order, that they cease repression in all its forms in West Papua, create the foundation for a civil society and, if it be the will of the people of West Papua, to allow them to participate in a genuine act of self-determination.

Our special relationship to the peoples of the island of New Guinea must be acknowledged, especially in view of the great sacrifices they made during World War II protecting Australian soldiers and Australia. It is apparent that there is a groundswell of support in Australia for the West Papuans and a mood of opposition to such blatant appeasement of Indonesian interests. The letters section of the Saturday Daily Telegraph last Saturday carried the heading in bold: ‘An appalling sell-out of vulnerable people’.

The West Papuans must not be sacrificed to weak-kneed political expediency. Vanstone and Howard’s proposed laws should be scrapped and the Indonesians told firmly that our bilateral relationship must be built on the basis of their Government respecting the human rights of their citizens from West Papua.

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