No Compromise: Refugee Turnbacks Are Immoral And Illegal


Eminent Australians have called for compromise from activists on the turnback of refugee boats. It’s never going to happen, writes Mark Goudkamp, Sadie Grant Butler and Nick Riemer.

The scale of the response to the Guardian’s revelations of abuse on Nauru should reasonably spell the immediate end of offshore detention. Yet on both Nauru and Manus Island, where detention has been declared illegal under the PNG constitution, over 1,700 people continue to languish, whether in or out of the camps.

For them, the government’s announcement that Manus will close at an undisclosed point in the future is small consolation.

Not since February, when the High Court’s decision to allow the forcible return of asylum seekers to offshore detention set off the mass ‘Let Them Stay’ campaign, has there been such widespread community outrage.

Peter Dutton responded with his usual contempt, dismissing the outrage as “hype”. But he has misjudged the public mood, just as he did during the election campaign when he labelled refugees “illiterate and innumerate”.

The ALP, which was responsible for reopening the offshore centres in 2012 and has been in lockstep with the Coalition ever since, is now attempting to channel some of the community’s anger into a push for a Senate inquiry.

Such an inquiry is not enough, but the demand for it presents the refugee support movement with an opportunity to break apart the bipartisan consensus on deterring refugees.

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Yet, despite the government clearly being on the back foot, there have been calls, including from former advocates, for refugee supporters to moderate our stance. Some even suggest that our unwillingness to do so is keeping people in detention.

Most notably, a recent Fairfax article by Frank Brennan, Tim Costello, Robert Manne and John Menadue (themselves Howard-era opponents of government policy) urges us to drop our opposition to “turnbacks” and the militarised blockade preventing anyone getting to Australia by boat.

Let’s get the facts straight: turnbacks do not just greatly compound the dangers refugees face, they unambiguously violate international law, as Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong, of UNSW’s Kaldor Centre, explain in their 2014 book Refugees.

It is surprising, to say the least, that self-styled refugee sympathisers – among them two members of the clergy and a professor of law – argue for them.

The turnback policy merely says the government is happy for asylum seekers to die elsewhere. In Europe, closing borders has meant more dangerous routes are used. If we are concerned about lives at sea, we should prioritise search and rescue, not deterrence. There have been allegations of mistreatment of asylum seekers during turnbacks at the hands of the Australian Navy.

In 2014, two boat-loads of Sri Lankan asylum seekers were delivered back to the Sri Lankan navy after on-board refugee assessments. Some of these people were arrested on return.

In April 2015, 46 Vietnamese asylum seekers were returned to Vietnam, after on-board assessments, where some of them were jailed.

Brennan and his co-authors have nothing to say about these cases of direct, illegal refoulement by the Australian government. Refugees who are not detained after a turnback are simply returned to the same situations of precarity and risk from which they are asking Australia to rescue them.

Turnbacks also make it impossible to assess asylum seekers’ protection claims. The UNHCR has stated that processing refugee claims whilst at sea through ‘enhanced screening’ procedures is not acceptable, because the minimum requirements for the proper assessment of refugee status are unlikely to be met on a boat under such time pressures.

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Asylum seekers, as captured in the documentary film ‘Chasing Asylum’

In defence of their proposal, Brennan et al. claim that advocates have no short-term solutions. They even go so far as to affirm that our “unwillingness to compromise” our principles “makes it even less likely that the lives of the 1,750 people [we]desperately care about will be saved.” But in the same breath they say they are prepared to keep the camps on Nauru and Manus operational in case of later need.

We do have solutions, and have had them for years. Asylum seekers must live onshore in the community while their claims are processed and we must vastly increase the resettlement of people whom the UNHCR finds to be refugees in Indonesia. At the moment, that proposal is politically unacceptable. But there has rarely, in the last 15 years, been a time at which momentum towards it has been as strong as it is now.

If our solutions sound rigid and uncompromising, then good — so they should. We should be rigid on principle when it comes to the protection of vulnerable people.

With the closure of Manus just announced, this is no time to compromise. Eminent public figures who support refugees should be adding to the impetus for positive change, not undermining it by legitimising outcomes no-one should accept.

We cannot be forever trading off the lives of men, women and children warehoused in detention against an armada of imagined unceasing boats borne over the horizon from Indonesia and beyond.

Refugee advocates will continue to push for the most humane solutions. Why should we compromise on the humanity of asylum seekers? Supporting turnbacks is morally reprehensible, legally inexcusable, and politically counterproductive.

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(IMAGE: Takver, Flickr)

Brennan et al. say the government has a mandate for stopping the boats. But no just or humane refugee policy can be predicated on evading responsibility for the very protection for which refugees are appealing.

Public opinion has changed in the past. It can change again. We’ve already seen a variety of community actions around the slogan “Bring Them Here”, including inspiring protests this week outside MPs’ offices by the Christian activist group Love Makes A Way.

Large demonstrations on 27 August will take place across Australia and at Australian embassies abroad.

Genuine supporters of refugees will continue to put pressure on the government and the Labor Party to ensure Australia makes a contribution proportionate to its resources in achieving justice and freedom for refugees.

Mark Goudkamp, Sadie Grant Butler and Nick Riemer are activists with the Refugee Action Coalition, Sydney