Yesterday’s announcement was a punch to the stomach for advocates, lawyers, academics and anyone capable of recalling events before 2007. After six weeks of consultation, the "Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers" handed back their findings in a 164-page report with the solution to saving lives at sea.
Today, legislation will be introduced into Parliament to allow the reopening of detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island. Regarding the policy about-face, Julia Gillard concurred it was harsh, but rational. "…what’s harder [is]watching people drown," she said.
We had been mildly hopeful in the lead up to this report. Not too hopeful, because experience has taught us to be wary of government-appointed panels proffering quick-fix solutions, so our expectations were tempered to something along the lines of "cautious anticipation." But perhaps I am a lot more naïve than I thought, because this whirlwind return to the Pacific Solution, less than five years after it was triumphantly abolished by the very same government about to reinstate it, completely blind-sided me.
According to their new "No Advantage" stance, any asylum seeker arriving by boat after 4:45pm yesterday will risk being punished for their mode of arrival by removal to either of the two off-shore detention centres where their processing will not be fast-tracked, where their detention may not be limited to any time frame and where they will not be guaranteed resettlement in Australia if found to be refugees.
I’m convinced of the need to stop people getting on boats. In the days following the more recent boat tragedies, ASCI was inundated with pleas from desperate family members as far away as Pakistan seeking information about loved ones suspected to have drowned. "I have no information he lives or die… Please answer quickly. I cant sleep every day," begged one woman seeking information about her brother. "Please find any information about my cousin," pleaded another, "if he is dead tell me where I can find his body."
Basic human decency demands that stopping this should be a top priority. But at what cost? It has only been four years since the last detainee walked out of Nauru and we celebrated the end of the Pacific solution; yet today we find ourselves back at square one. We find ourselves having the same conversations about deterrence, off-shore processing, children in detention, mental health and our international legal obligations.
Advocates have talked about it, a former Prime Minister has spoken about it, lawyers have challenged it, politicans have opposed it, inquiries have questioned it and academics have condemned it. Yet Australia repeatedly returns with dogged determination to the rhetoric that we need to be "cruel to be kind". How many times can our country repeat the same mistake?
In his submission to the Expert Panel, barrister Shane Prince noted frankly:
"The reason people get on to boats is that they see no hope of being resettled if they stay in Indonesia. They see no hope for their children…The reason that they have no hope is because of successive government policies that have resulted in an unrealistically low number of places available for resettlement from Indonesia, thus creating an artificial bottleneck… That approach does not stop people from coming to Indonesia, obviously, it just makes them desperate once they arrive."
People get on boats because they have no other effective way of obtaining protection. The alternative is to be killed in their country of origin, risk torture, imprisonment and a life in limbo in a second country like Malaysia that does not recognise their rights as refugees.
In 2007, Able Seaman Laura Whittle told a magazine of one man she saw hold out his daughter to navy personnel in inflatable rafts:
"The girl had on a pink jacket and she had curly hair, and it was like the father was saying, ‘Take her, take her.’ That was the gesture he was making. It was like ‘Give her a chance’ and it was then that I moved out of work mode and the humanity began to kick in. I thought he just wants to save his little girl. He wants her to have a better life… that’s when I started to think so differently, ‘How could somebody be so desperate to head towards the unknown with their children on a rickety boat and to put everything at risk?’ They must have been coming from something terrible and it made me think, ‘This isn’t right, this isn’t how things should be.’"
But the Panel has recommended that people arriving by boat not be eligible to sponsor their family through the Special Humanitarian Program. The Howard government also restricted the ability of refugees on temporary protection visas to be reunited with their families. What resulted was a flow of family members — women and children — seeking passage by boat to Australia to be reunited with husbands and fathers. The SIEV X tragedy, where 350 people perished when their boat sank enroute to Christmas Island, comprised 146 children, 142 women and 65 men.
Dr Caroline Fleay of Curtin Universtiy’s Centre for Human Rights Education has been following up the men who were detained on Nauru during the Howard era. She notes that some of the men who were forcibly returned to their countries have since come back to Australia by boat and have sought and been granted asylum. Mohammad is one of them. He spent three years languishing in Nauru before he was forcibly returned to Afghanistan. He returned by boat to Christmas Island in 2009 where, after more than a year, he was granted asylum. He is yet to be reunited with his wife and young child, but he continues to live in hope of bringing them to safety.
As advocates, we didn’t expect the earth to move or the government to begin accepting refugees with open arms. But nor did we expect the government to look at the resounding failure that was Nauru and say, "I think its worth giving that another go". We’re not just lamenting the opportunities lost but the lessons apparently forgotten.
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