The New PM Has Work To Do On Refugees


Dear Mr Rudd,

Welcome back to the leadership. There are urgent tasks awaiting you with respect to refugees.

In 2009, your government towed 78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers to Indonesia in the Oceanic Viking. You then negotiated to end a stand-off with the asylum seekers – who refused to disembark the boat – by offering to resettle them in Australia or other nations. Most of them have been successfully resettled in Canada, USA, Europe and Australia. Three of them still remain in indefinite detention almost four years later.

Twenty days ago, when you were in Geelong, you said "I believe that Australia has always been decent in opening up its arms to people from around the world, whether they come here as migrants or whether they come here as refugees — and the reason we have done that is to build our nation."

I believe you are a decent man, despite any criticism to the contrary. You have advanced Australia fair on issues such as homelessness and Indigenous rights. I believe you have the capacity to improve Australia’s standing on human rights, which has been criticised by Amnesty, the Australia’s Human Rights Commission and the UNHCR.

I also understand that you face considerable pressures regarding refugees and asylum seekers. We have record numbers of people in detention, including children. We have locked up hundreds of asylum seekers in dubious conditions on Manus Island and in Nauru. Thousands of asylum seekers are unable to work under the "no advantage" principle. There are 52 people in indefinite detention who have not had adequate access to a trial or the evidence supporting their imprisonment.

Relationships in the region with Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India and China make it difficult to navigate a solution and there are diametrically opposed pressures coming from hard-line voters and Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention; not to mention the empty marketing of the Abbott-led coalition.

You are not going to please everyone when it comes to asylum seeker and refugee policy. But you have little to lose and much to gain by making decency towards refugees an urgent mission.

In 2008, you ended the Pacific Solution. Now it is back, and is costlier and more brutal than ever. You also announced ceasing the detention of children and making legal advice available to unauthorised arrivals. These improvements have been worn away. You could restore these acts of decency.

In 2009, there was a large increase in asylum seekers, especially in the wake of the Sri Lankan civil war, largely ignored by the West. Australia has continued to receive large numbers of asylum seekers from countries at war or with ongoing conflicts and violence, including Afghanistan and Iraq.

The pressures and responses are complex, but Australia has not yet found a sustainable and decent policy that balances our international obligations with national security and population distribution.

In the noise of the next few days, with microphones and cameras shoved towards you, with commentators and advisers cramming your mind with influential analysis, please maintain your decency. These urgent tasks await you:

  1. Remove all children from detention. Their vulnerable souls and minds need freedom.
  2. Close down Manus Island. Papua New Guinea should not be doing our dirty work for us. They are housing thousands of refugees from West Papua and other areas.
  3. Place all refugees with adverse security assessments in community detention with monitoring, and legislate for appeal rights and an advocate who can access classified files and act on the refugees' behalf.
  4. Work with the Sri Lankan Government to better understand the complex situation and sustainable solutions that protect human rights.
  5. Grant 2000 more visas to refugees waiting in Indonesia and Malaysia before working backward to places of origin.
  6. Improve safety at sea protocols and cooperation so that lives are saved, not lost.
  7. Work with Indonesia to stop people smugglers exploiting desperate people.

None of these measures will affect our economic standing, our capacity to educate children, our hospitals, our public transport. In fact, we will save billions on remote detention centres, and invest in dignity and decency.


Rose Iser

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