Malcolm Turnbull’s US Deal Proves His Brutal Refugee Policies Didn’t Work

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The deal with America is a way out for a government obsessed with cruelty and unable to resolve the contradictions it created, writes Max Chalmers.

Three years after the initiation of Operation Sovereign Borders, four years after Australia recommenced the transfer of refugees to Nauru, and 15 years after John Howard ground people rescued by the Tampa into political capital, Australia’s refugee policy remains a mess of contradictions.

Last weekend, flanked by military staff and his Immigration Minister, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that the United States had agreed to take some – though it’s not clear how many – of the refugees currently trapped on Nauru and Manus Island.

If the deal is not blocked by the incoming Trump administration, it will be welcome.

The overwhelming majority of those assessed on Manus and Nauru have been found to be refugees in need of protection. Instead of being given the chance to restart their lives they have been detained for years in a process that threatened to stretch out eternally.

Children have witnessed their parents endure torture and in turn torture themselves. Grown men have seen the violence of uncertainly drain life from their friends and the active abuse of those tasked with their care. Even after release from detention, the people on Nauru and Manus have faced a future all but devoid of hope.

Turnbull has now offered to restore it with one hand while withdrawing it with another, announcing a 20-year Nauru visa, potentially extending the amount of time people can be held on the tiny island state. And yet the American component of the deal does offer the chance to break the gridlock that Labor and the Coalition jointly established. It represents a major divergence from the previous policy of total deterrence.

Finally, the camps could come to an end.

(IMAGE: Global Panorama, Flickr)
(IMAGE: Global Panorama, Flickr)

The destinations the Coalition had previously tried to establish as settlement locations included Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan, and the Philippines, on top of Papua New Guinea. What they have in common is their undesirability. These are states where political persecution flourishes, corruption is rife, overcrowding and the lack of resources are critical problems, health outcomes are poor, income levels are low, and travel warnings from the Australian government are severe.

It’s no coincidence: The plan was to deal with two problems at once by sending refugees to third party countries, thus avoiding refoulement (though still putting them at great risk), while keeping the deterrent factor high to anyone thinking of getting on a boat.

While Turnbull’s talking points on the new deal have been the same ones we have heard now for years – people smugglers, Labor’s failures, deaths at sea – the new course subtly admits something far bigger.

The policy of deterrence, of causing human beings to suffer in order to stop further asylum seekers getting on boats, has failed.

There was always a question about what would happen to those on Manus and Nauru, a question no-one, least of all Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, could answer satisfactorily. The obvious answer was that they should be settled in Australia. Yet both major parties dodged this conclusion, afraid to admit that their ‘be cruel first, ask question later’ strategies had been designed on the hop and were fundamentally untenable.

How the hell were developing nations going to take an influx of refugees needing intensive resources and assistance to integrate? No-one cared to answer.

Neither party had reason to think such slavish adherence to ‘toughness’ would actually bring resolution. Human Rights Watch’s Elaine Pearson explained and critiqued this succinctly in her response to the US announcement:

The Australian government’s intransigence and short-sighted immigration policies, based on political rather than humanitarian motives, have caused immense suffering to people fleeing persecution in their homelands and who were locked up on Nauru and Manus.

As they turned to toughness, both Labor and the Coalition tried to position the policies of offshore processing and offshore settlement as not merely preferable but necessary. They acted as if there was no alternatives to their positions, as if you had to choose between cruelty offshore or deaths at sea. Don’t support the camps? How dare you condone the drowning of children!

Children locked up in immigration detention on Nauru, August 2016. This image is courtesy of Mums 4 Refugees.
Children locked up in immigration detention on Nauru, August 2016. This image is courtesy of Mums 4 Refugees.

They continued to make this case in the face of credible and consistent accusations of child abuse, and unrelenting waves of self-harm. They sent gay men to places where homosexuality is illegal, and women to nations that criminalise abortion. They let inadequate medical supplies kill Hamid Kehazaei. Opposing any of this was said to be immoral.

The argument that offshore settlement was the only way to help prevent deaths at sea therefore helped create the ridiculous perception that a racist policy fuelled by suspicion of non-white refugees and migrants could be transformed into a reasonable and humanitarian enterprise.

The tension between the messages ‘we’re worried about drownings’ and ‘we’re harming those who don’t drown’ failed to irk a public conditioned to mistrust people who seek refuge by boat.

And still, this policy turned out to be an emphatic failure, even if you exclude the wellbeing of asylum seekers from the equation.

Australia effectively bribed Cambodia to the tune of $55 million, but virtually no refugees agreed to move there. That’s hardly surprising when you consider the problems they faced at home would have likely been replicated in the autocratic state, which itself boasts a terrible record on the treatment of refugees.

Very few have ventured out into Papua New Guinean society, a place where there is also good reason to think they will not be safe. The other deals simply never came to pass.

This paradox of trying to help settle people while needing to treat them cruelly left the Abbott and then Turnbull governments paralysed, as Peter Dutton fumbled around haplessly for a resolution. The abuses on Nauru and Manus pilled up. The outrage grew. Something had to give.

Even as conservative commentators crowed, you could see the end coming. By mid 2015 Nauru’s political leaders had become so bent that New Zealand and the US openly pressured them to reform. Australia remained quiet.

The centres became ‘open’ on both islands and a court challenge in PNG made the detention centre illegal. In documents leaked to New Matilda in 2015, a senior member of the Department of Immigration said then Minister Scott Morrison was “shit worried” about the potential for massive violence on Nauru. He too realised that keeping people there was dangerous.

Detention was falling apart, how could people be settled?

new matilda, peter dutton
Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton appearing on ABC TV’s 7:30 Report.

The obvious resolution became clear once more: let these people come to Australia. Stubbornly, the government refused.

In changing course, Turnbull has now effectively admitted that, aside from being unjust, the bipartisan strategy of devastation and disincentive was untenable as a policy. The government’s wholehearted commitment to cruelty hamstrung it, blocking the most obvious solutions at every turn.

So now the Coalition has taken a way out that helps it maintain political credibility with the fanatical hardliners, and a general public sick of hearing about the issue. It has given in to resettlement in an Australia that is not Australia. It has held its promise that no-one would make it to Australia while giving in to the fundamental point: refugees will be resettled somewhere safe.

Turnbull has said the deal is a one-off, but that begs further questions. It seems most likely that Border Force is now committed to turn back every boat regardless of who is on it, a practice it had more or less followed already. What happens to people who are not screened out is anyone’s guess.

The deal has highlighted the incoherence and contradictions at the heart of Australia’s refugee policies, while offering Turnbull’s government a final chance to place the 1,600 or so people they dumped indefinitely in the Pacific.

If the deal is scuttled by the sociopathic new American President, the Coalition will only have itself to blame. The real victims, once again, will be the men, women, and children they have captured and detained.

It’s never been about their wellbeing. As far as Australia’s political leaders are concerned it’s okay if brown people on boats end up in safety. Just so long as they don’t end up as our neighbours.

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Max Chalmers

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

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