Julia Gillard Pens Piece On “Heartbreaking” Refugee Situation: Someone Should Send It To 2012


Fate – and perhaps in some cases, guilt – do funny things to politicians in retirement.

Phillip Ruddock, who has done more than most to put Australia’s refugee policies profoundly at odds with international human rights obligations, is now the nation’s ‘special envoy’ for human rights.

Joe Hockey, who railed against entitlement while proving thoroughly inadequate in his own job as Treasurer, has been rewarded with the prime position of US Ambassador.

And now it seems that Julia Gillard – who excised the entire Australian mainland so that refugees who arrived by boat would not be afforded the same rights as others under Australian law; sent men, women and children to offshore detention; and effectively suspended the processing of thousands of claims for asylum – has decided retirement is the perfect time to become a refugee advocate.

In a piece published recently on opinion portal Project Syndicate, the former Australian Prime Minister turned Board Chair for the Global Partnership for Education, notes that the organisation she now works for recently provided a $7 million grant to Chad. The goal was to assist in providing education services to the hundreds of thousands of refugees forced into the country by surrounding instability. In explaining the move, Gillard appealed to readers to think of the children.

“Wherever they are, most refugees face nearly identical depredations: hunger and dehydration, lack of decent shelter, susceptibility to illness, vulnerability to continued threats from combatants and terror groups, the emotional trauma of what’s lost, and anxiety about what lies ahead,” Gillard writes.

“Also, not least, they share the risk that their children might not receive the education they need and deserve – and as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promises. Indeed, conflict and crisis is one of the biggest, and growing, barriers to educating the world’s children.”

The piece goes on to point out the global refugee crisis extends far beyond the now largely theoretical Syrian borders, and argues that education should be given a greater priority in aid spending. It describes the situation as “heartbreaking”.

“Conflict and fragility, not only in Syria, but also in many other lesser-known sites of mass misery, are among the most urgent and seemingly intractable global challenges of our time. Our only hope of breaking out of this cycle of violence and poverty is to ensure that every child, including those trapped by crisis, gets quality schooling and the ability to build a brighter future.”

Former Australian Prime Minister being interview by Mehdi Hasan on Al Jazeera.
Former Australian Prime Minister being interview by Mehdi Hasan on Al Jazeera.

That rallying tone might sound a bit odd to the asylum seekers and refugees who tried to flee such violence and start ‘brighter futures’ during Gillard’s time as PM.

Under Gillard, Australia’s refugee policy settings slowly shifted from ‘that’s not really ideal’ to ‘ok, now we’re intentionally harming people to send a message’.

The government excised the mainland from the migration zone, something Gillard’s own Immigration Minister Chris Bowen had described as “tragic, illogical and a stain on the national character” when the Howard government had tried to do it in 2006. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed with Afghanistan, enabling Australia to return people to the country against their will. Perhaps most devastatingly, Gillard re-introduced offshore processing and detention, sending families to Manus Island and Nauru. Since her time as PM two men have died in the PNG camp, and allegations of assaults and sexual violence have emerged steadily from Nauru. Gillard also introduced the ‘no-advantage’ rule, effectively suspending the processing of those who arrived by boat after August 2012, according to the Refugee Council, causing thousands to be held in limbo.

In fairness to Gillard, her time as leader did see some humanitarian reforms, including the introduction of complimentary protection measures the Coalition has since tried to peel away, and an increase to Australia’s annual humanitarian intake, which was beefed up to 20,000 per year (a number the Coalition has since wound back).

But for all her newfound desire to bring a bright future to children fleeing conflict, the fact remains that close to 1,800 children were held in immigration detention by the time Kevin Rudd finally overcame Gillard and returned to the Labor leadership.

It’s little wonder she had such trouble explaining the decisions she took in the area when confronted on Al Jazeera last year.


Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.