Angus Houston, Michael L’Estrange and Paris Aristotle handed down their report on asylum seekers yesterday. Julia Gillard said she was ready to compromise as Caucus made an in-principle commitment to the panel’s recommendations — as it promised it would when it was commissioned. It looks likely that the Coalition will go along with the plan. It’s all soft hearts and hard heads. Realism, not idealism.
For many weary refugee advocates, there’s too much that is familiar in the Houston Panel.
The major recommendations are a return to processing asylum claims by boat arrivals on Nauru and Manus Island. There will be more monitoring of the welfare of detainees but there’s no firm commitment to speeding up processing times. Eventually our refugee intake will increase to 27,000 a year. Provisions relating to family reunions have changed. The status of the Malaysia Solution remains unclear.
New Matilda has been covering asylum seekers since we set up shop in 2004. That was when the Tampa, Children Overboard, and the sinking of the Siev-X were very recent memories. We all hoped that we’d never see their like again.
As we dig into the NM archive, we find years of comment grappling with the treatment of asylum seekers who arrive by boat by successive Australian governments. It’s worth revisiting stories that have already appeared detailing conditions in detention centres, local opposition to offshoring, humanitarian concerns about our approach and the experiences of detainees. They’re alarmingly relevant to the current debate.
Last month, we published a two-part timeline of the Pacific Solution compiled by Wendy Bacon. Read the two parts here and here. Bacon begins with the passage of the Howard government’s Border Protection Bill in 2001, introduced in the wake of the Tampa affair which established the processing centre on Nauru. It continues to the departure of the last detainees from the island in 2008 and examines the ongoing consequences of that policy.
The timeline records the litany of expert reports that condemned the Nauru detention centre, as well as the tragic stories told by former detainees of their time there. It’s timely and sobering reading as parliamentarians thrash out the politics in Canberra this week.
Susan Metcalfe, who travelled to Nauru when the centre was operational and has worked for many years as a refugee and asylum seeker advocate, wrote for NM recently about the dark days of the Howard government:
"When Howard was leading our country, staffers in one minister’s office called themselves the KKK. Used in relation to asylum seekers, it meant ‘Keep them out, Kick them out, or Keep them in detention’. I have heard this more than once from reliable sources and I have no doubt that it is true."
Metcalfe also wrote for us in 2006 after spending time with the last two asylum seekers held on Nauru (save for a group of 83 asylum seekers sent to the island in 2007 just before the election of the Rudd government). She wrote:
"This week, I have just returned from another two weeks visiting Nauru. After more than four and a half years, the situation of the two men who are left behind remains unresolved. The men have been assessed by Australia to be ‘genuine’ refugees, however, the Australian Government has decided, at this stage, that the men must be resettled in a country other than Australia because they have not passed security tests. Details of their security assessments have not been made available to the men a cause of great distress to them.
"Having spent many hours talking to the men over recent years, including spending every day and night with them for the past two weeks, I find the situation incomprehensible and tragic."
When the idea of processing asylum claims on Manus Island was revived last year, Ilya Gridneff filed this report from PNG. He describes the practical and political impediments to getting a centre up and running — as well as opposition from locals and the UN to processing the claims of people who seek asylum in Australia in PNG. "It took a regime change in PNG to strengthen Australia’s desire to reopen the Manus Island detention centre but there is still a long way to go before any processing centre will be operational."
Afghan-Australian student and refugee Hadi Zaher wrote for us criticising the tendency of media commentators and politicians to characterise boat arrivals as scammers.
"’Queue jumpers’, ‘illegal arrivals’ and ‘asylum shoppers’ are some of the nicer terms that have been used in the debate in spite of the fact that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are within their legal rights under international law. There are no queues for Afghan refugees in Pakistan or for the Tamils in Sri Lanka: a torturous trip of up to four weeks on leaky boats in deadly waters and an additional year in detention is certainly not a shopping trip."
Misperceptions about about how and why people arrive by boat in Australia abound. Leanne Weber provides a powerful response to the question of why asylum seekers arrive by boat rather than plane in her story on visa conditions. The gist: many people who risk their lives on boats would not be granted any sort of visa to reach Australia and therefore wouldn’t be allowed to board a plane.
The contortions to make our refugee policy adhere to international or Australian law aren’t new either. When the High Court handed down its decision against the Malaysia arrangement in 2011, Mary Crock and Daniel Ghezelbash filed this piece. They concluded:
"As long as the Australian government is involved in any aspect of the decision process in asylum claims, the plain message from the High Court is that it will not be easily dislodged from its constitutionally entrenched role as guardian of justice and the rule of law."
There have long been concerns about the implementation of immigration policy. Researcher Rimi Khan wrote for us in 2010 about her experiences sitting in on interviews between immigration officials and asylum seekers. She wrote, "the Howard government’s policies were premised on a wilful disregard for the circumstances from which refugees came, serviced by a bureaucracy that cared little either way, and propagated by a rhetoric that took advantage of the voting public’s ignorance."
Distressing scenes haven’t been limited to third country processing centres. NM’s Marni Cordell reported last year on the teargassing of detainees and bystanders by the AFP at the Christmas Island processing centre. Onshore facilities like Woomera and Villawood, both notoriously hard to access, have been under scrutiny too. When we went to Villawood last year, we heard tales of neglect, mismanagement and unfair treatment.
Let’s not forget the private companies who run many of Australia’s detention centres. NM has been monitoring Serco in particular. Last year we were first to publish the contract between the federal government and Serco to run detention centres. We raised questions about the qualification of security staff, the treatment of mentally ill detainees, Serco’s liability and more.
When Malcolm Turnbull addressed the Parliament in June on the asylum seeker impasse, he cautioned against making the perfect the enemy of the good. This has never been a danger for Australian politicians who have proved themselves to be the pre-eminent threat to the good when it comes to asylum seekers. Their desultory performance warrants condemnation on grounds of both principle and implementation. This has imperilled the lives of asylum seekers — and what’s left of Australia’s reputation as a compassionate, international law-abiding nation.
Chris Bowen has been in a media flurry since yesterday’s caucus meeting. Top of his list of talking points is what he characterised as the core principle of the report: that boat arrivals should receive no advantage. Reinstating processing on Nauru and Manus Island will make sure that there is no positive discrimination in favour of asylum seekers who arrive by boat. It might be legal to do so, and almost all asylum claims by boat arrivals might ultimately be granted, but the perception that people who make perilous boat journeys to our shores to claim asylum are getting an easy ride must be quashed.
Earlier this year Jeff Sparrow argued in NM that the debate on asylum seekers should be reframed. That hasn’t happened. Gillard and Bowen’s expeditious response to the Houston report made one thing very clear: we’re still deciding who comes to this country and how they get here.