The federal Labor Government has returned to offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island in response to the recommendations of the Houston Panel. The decision to endorse the recommendations of the Houston Panel by Labor politicians has left a very sour taste in the mouths of members and supporters of Labor for Refugees.
Labor for Refugees was started in New South Wales 2001 by John Robertson, Paul Howes and Amanda Tattersall, and also in Victoria by Robin Rothfield and others, in response to the intolerable cave-ins by Kim Beazley to John Howard.
Since then, Labor for Refugees has fought hard at state and federal party conferences for a more humane refugee and asylum seeker policy in the party. Party policy has been markedly improved since the dark days of 2001, but members of parliament ignore it, even though they give a commitment to adhere to the party platform as formulated by the National Conference of the party. Last year, a party member, Lev Lafayette, tried to make a complaint against Julia Gillard under the party rules — but the Victorian state branch of the party ruled they had no jurisdiction in a complaint against a federal MP.
Labor for Refugees has grown steadily in membership since 2001 and now constitutes hundreds of party members in Queensland, NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia, and the ACT. There has been some contact with party members in South Australia seeking to set up a Labor for Refugees Group there. Support for Labor for Refugees comes from across the factions, Right, Left and Centre — none can claim ownership.
And so last week, another episode in the tawdry history of refugee and asylum seeker policy in this country. Barrister Shane Prince’s submission to the expert panel on asylum seekers makes clear that claims for asylum made from Indonesia are not numerous.
UNHCR figures show that the numbers of people seeking asylum in Indonesia have not been higher than 6600 since 1994 (excluding refugees from East Timor). In 1997 and 1998 there were only 69 and 109 people claiming asylum respectively. These low figures were not due to John Howard’s vicious Operation Relex, which was not in place until 2001.
At the end of 2010, only 811 registered refugees were awaiting resettlement in Indonesia, with 2071 waiting in the pipeline for processing by the UNHCR. These numbers are relatively stable. There were approximately 2000 asylum seekers in Indonesia in 2009. By the end of 2011, the UNHCR figures show there were only 4239 asylum seekers and refugees in all of Indonesia.
Between 2001 and 2010, only 560 refugees were resettled in Australia from Indonesia, an average of 56 per annum. During the same period approximately 130,000 places were allocated for refugee and humanitarian visas.
There are only two UNHCR staff in Indonesia to process all claims for refugee status. In the first five months of 2012 to the end of May 2012, only 24 refugees were resettled in Australia via Indonesia. No wonder refugees and asylum seekers take a huge risk and get on a boat. They get sick of waiting!
Nauru or Papua New Guinea will have no deterrent effect — for asylum seekers they will always be preferable to the death camps at home. Instead of punishing people for exercising their legal right to seek asylum, why not bring those registered as refugees in Indonesia to Australia by plane or safe boat? Increase the number of staff in Indonesia processing claims by asylum seekers. Make the maximum waiting time in Indonesia two years. If there is a speeding up of the processing of claims, and asylum seekers know that the maximum time they may have to wait is two years, the incentive to get on a dangerous boat voyage is reduced.
Why won’t the Australian Government do this? Labor in government no longer shows leadership in implementing the policy platform developed by the party membership. It merely reacts to the Opposition. Both sides in the political debate fear the poorly informed marginal seat voter, who, according to the polls, responds well to the Opposition’s fear mongering.
The recommendation of the Houston Panel that those arriving by boat should not have access to family reunion is nothing more than a punishment. Imagine a child finally escaping the Taliban, only to be told they cannot be safely reunited with their sisters or mother. This is desperately cruel and smells like the reintroduction of TPVs by another name.
It also contravenes Article 157 of the Labor Party National Platform (2011) which states:
"Labor will ensure that asylum seekers who arrive by irregular means will not be punished for their mode of arrival."
It is also against Article 31 of the Refugee Convention itself. Fundamentally, the panel has simply not understood that seeking asylum is not and has never been illegal.
The panel put paid to Tony Abbott’s core promise at the last federal election though — "to stop the boats". Abbott insists that it will be his lead slogan next time round too. But the Houston Panel said it is not operationally possible for the Australian Navy while there is no regional framework in place. Abbott now has yet another hole in his policy. The Navy won’t co-operate and neither will the Indonesians, who have recently told Coalition Shadow Ministers in Indonesia to get lost, and be more humane.
When Robert Menzies committed Australia to the Refugee Convention in 1954 the nation made a longstanding commitment to never turn away refugees who arrive on our shores to seek our help. We made that commitment so that people who arrived on our shores could do so realising that they had come to a country that would process them fairly and offer them safety and a chance for their children. In the lesser-known second verse of our national anthem are the lyrics, "For those who’ve come across the seas, We’ve boundless plains to share". I wonder if anyone remembers how significant those simple words are.
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