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Border control gulags have had their time


What are the chances of Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten agreeing by Christmas that it's time to close the refugee processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island? Turnbull and Shorten already agree that the boats coming from Indonesia should be stopped. The boats are now being stopped, if need be, with turnbacks, which neither side of politics now questions.

Manus Island detention centreNow that the boats have been stopped and will remain stopped no matter who is in government, there is no reason to maintain the facilities on Nauru and Manus Island. The conditions in these facilities are not only harsh, they are cruel. These facilities no longer serve any useful purpose. They cost a fortune. They are wreaking havoc with the local community as well as with the traumatised detainees. They have outlived their intended purpose. They are gulags which rightly tarnish Australia's reputation.

Consider the history. When Julia Gillard failed to have her Malaysia solution implemented, she set up an expert panel chaired by Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston, the respected, recently retired Chief of the Armed Forces. In August 2012, Houston's panel told the Gillard government that 'the conditions required for effective, lawful and safe turnbacks of irregular vessels headed for Australia with asylum seekers on board are not currently met in regard to turnbacks to Indonesia'.

So they looked for other short-term measures. Having studied John Howard's 2001 Pacific solution, the panel concluded that 'in the short term, the establishment of processing facilities in Nauru as soon as practical is a necessary circuit breaker to the current surge in irregular migration to Australia'.

When Kevin Rudd replaced Gillard in June 2013, he set about resurrecting the Pacific Solution immediately but with an added 'nasty': anyone found to be a refugee on Nauru or on Manus Island would be resettled anywhere except Australia.

The situation has changed radically in the last three years. We no longer need a 'circuit breaker'. Retired Major General Jim Molan has advised government that the conditions for effective, lawful and safe turnbacks are now met. The military have turned back boats. They have stopped the boats coming.

Tony Abbott as prime minister was adamant that his government was acting decently when stopping the boats and turning them back. The government is confident that the people smuggling racket in Java has been smashed. The Labor Party national conference has signed off on stopping the boats and agreeing to turnbacks if they be required.

I concede that there is no way that Turnbull would agree to any substantive change for some months until he can be satisfied that the change of prime minister has not resulted in any renewed effort by people smugglers to regroup in Java.

And there is no reason to think that Turnbull's approach would deviate in the least from Abbott's. He was after all the leader of the Opposition at the time Kevin Rudd was dealing with the Oceanic Viking incident in Indonesia. Everything Turnbull said at that time was taken from John Howard's song sheet, completely consistent with everything later said by Abbott as prime minister.

For example, Turnbull told parliament on 20 October 2009:

It should not ever be controversial to state, as a matter of policy and principle, that Australians have the right to decide who comes to this country, our country, and the manner in which they come. The previous prime minister, Mr Howard, was criticised for saying that, but the fact is that that is what every Australian expects of their government.

Under the Howard government it took a range of strong measures and years of vigilance to halt people smuggling. The Rudd government, on the other hand, has quite deliberately, and with dangerous naivety, unpicked the fabric of that suite of policies, sending an unmistakeable message to people-smugglers that our borders are open for business.

In short, Labor has lost control of our borders.

In May 2014, Turnbull as a minister in the Abbott cabinet did concede that Rudd's renewed Pacific solution as enacted by Abbott was harsh, indeed very harsh. Though conceding that others thought it cruel, he did not think it so.

When asked on BBC TV if he was comfortable with Australia's policy of 'outsourcing its human rights responsibilities to ill-equipped third countries', Turnbull replied: 'I don't think any of us is entirely comfortable with any policies relating to border protection.' He was insistent that Australia was acting in compliance with international law.

He then added: 'We have harsh measures, some would say they are cruel measures. I would not go so far as to say they are cruel. But let's not argue about the semantics. The fact is that if you want to stop the people smuggling business you have to be very, very tough.'

Anyone hoping a Turnbull government will be more accommodating of boat people than an Abbott government will be sadly mistaken.

But that is not the end of the matter. Now that the Australian government with Opposition concurrence has firmly closed the entry door to Australia, there is no warrant for maintaining the chamber of horrors in the Pacific which was set up as a 'circuit breaker' deterrent. Turnbull needs to admit that a purposeless chamber of horrors is not just harsh; it is cruel, and it is unAustralian.

After a few months transition, it will be time to close the facilities on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea; abandon the Cambodian shipment plan; negotiate a regional agreement for safe returns ensuring compliance with the non-refoulement obligation; and double the refugee and humanitarian component from 13,750 places to 27,000 places in the migration program, as recommended by the 2012 panel.

The government should encourage further community participation in a refugee resettlement scheme which allows refugee communities and their supporters to increase the number of refugees resettled without taking the places of those refugees who would come anyway without community sponsorship.

Why not increase the humanitarian program to at least 20,000 places as was espoused by both sides of politics before the 2013 election campaign? And why not provide another 7000 places for community sponsored refugees?

Novelist Tim Winton has rightly said that there is a need for Australia to turn back, to 'raise us back up to our best selves'. We, the voters, are sick and tired of the unnecessary meanness and nastiness. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can both secure our borders and increase our commitment to orderly resettlement of more refugees.

We can secure our borders without the Pacific gulags and the oppressive onshore measures denying asylum seekers work rights and adequate welfare assistance. The ethical dividend of closing our borders is being able to treat anyone inside our borders decently and being able to bring asylum seekers in Nauru and Manus Island to Australia for processing and resettlement.

If the boats could have been stopped back in 2012, there is no way that Houston's panel would ever have recommended the Nauru/Manus Island gulag. We the voters should now demand the ethical dividend from Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten.

Frank BrennanThis is part of Frank Brennan's address The Ethical Challenge of Stopping the Boats Upstream, Closing the Camps Downstream and Opening Community Services to the Melaleuca Refugee Centre, Darwin, delivered on 29 September 2015.

Manus Island Image: Greens MPs, Flickr CC 

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten, Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott



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Existing comments

A heartfelt assent from me to everything Frank writes here. surely Turnbull and Shorten can have a quet cup of tea together and end this miserable, shaming busiess soon.?

tony kevin | 01 October 2015  

And for the love of Mike, can we get above the pathetic whinge of accepting just 20,000 refugees as if that is the biggest number anyone can come up with? That message tells the other 60 million displaced people they are unworthy of any rights and that is depraved.

Marilyn | 01 October 2015  

A "gulag" is a forced labour camp used punish and control political dissidents and others. Many prisoners did not emerge alive. It was intended that they should not. There is no excuse for using such a word in connection with any Australian prison. Ethics ?

David Nelson | 01 October 2015  

Two years ago, Malcolm Fraser, said Australia's detention centres were "Soviet-style gulags" and called for a royal commission. "What has happened on Manus is not new, it has been going on for months and months," he said. "The [immigration] department has known that, and it's only public exposure that has brought it to light."

Frank Brennan SJ | 01 October 2015  

Never, ever will I allow anyone to get away with the lie that stopping refugees getting to real protection is a good thing like old white men do. It's a legal right for people to sail anywhere they please and ask to land, it's not up to us to impose our lies on the neighbours to out source our responsibilities.

Marilyn | 02 October 2015  

I very much support the idea of more community sponsored refugees. This accurately reflects the community's true generosity instead of the government and opposition trying to outbid each other's compassion. What follows in this scenario is that the burden is lumped on to an unwilling, and potentially resentful, community. Fr Brennan has called Angela Merkel generous. However, neither she nor parliamentarians nor European bureaucrats are the ones who have to bear the brunt of this government largesse. It is the average German people who find their cities inundated with masses of people, ill-equipped to live let alone flourish in an alien culture. They do not have endless resources to clothe, feed, educate and care for the migrants. Better that people decide for themselves how many refugees they can settle. Yes, Marilyn, some of those 60 million displaced people will not find a place. But the citizens of host nations can only do so much or are only willing to do so much. Like it or not, that is the case.

Marg M | 02 October 2015  

Where can I access the full text of Fr Frank's address?

Ken | 02 October 2015  

Nowhere in this piece did I see any attempt at compassion for refugees. Refugees from harsh and dangerous circumstances are not "summuglers." They ar people who risk their lives to survive and start over. Have you not seen the statistics that immigrants raise the economy because they are so eager to start over? This is a cruel attitude and disappointing.

Geri Spieler | 04 October 2015  

This statement echoes my personal attitude to the whole detention issue. The use of the term "gulag" and the horror overtones that it conveys is very appropriate. Politicians who support this way of dealing with people who are victims of war and political upheaval should be ashamed of themselves. What do they think they have achieved? The whole approach was a legalistic way of dealing with people who did not meet specific entry requirements: go back to Square One and start seeing them as desperate people in need.

Paddy Byers | 04 October 2015  

Totally agree. Come on Aussies and other immigrants let your government know how you feel about it. Australia was settled by immigrants and they should be sympathetic to other hopeful immigrants. Yours is a beautiful country and should be full of compassionate people not rednecks so prove it.

Noeline Champion | 04 October 2015  

a cynical afterthought: It would be wonderful to see all the politicians and other vocal supporters of detention camps standing together and singing Frank Sinatra's song "I Did It My Way."

Paddy Byers | 04 October 2015  

If not gulags, David, the fact that your fall-back term is 'prison' is in itself deeply disturbing, though unfortunately accurate. Perhaps no forced labour, but It's pretty clear that even our local centres are designed to 'punish and control '. It is sickening that this is how our government treats the most vulnerable people in the world-community who have come to us seeking refuge. The most appalling thing I've experienced of late is walking through the reception doors of our local 'prison' into the visitors' centre to the sight of a young mother, her six month old baby on her lap, and her six year old daughter skipping in childish play around her fully accepting this 'prison' as her reality. Don't stop with Nauru and Manus. Close the bloody lot!

Lisa | 04 October 2015  

Thank you Frank Brennan, this is what most people I speak to agree. Now that the boats have been stopped, why haven't those in detention been processed. Every church or person should be standing up for these individuals and sharing what we as a nation are proud of.

WENDY PRENDERGAST | 04 October 2015  

With Turnbull and Shorten and their cabinets apparently united in joint defence of the cruel status quo, it is really vital that community leaders like Frank Brennan, Julian Burnside, Rosie Batty and many others continue forcefully to point the way to our better selves. And Turnbull and Shorten must agree a plan to go forward together. Maybe they can summon back a followup report by Houston, Aristotle and L'Estrange to give them political cover to move forward together?

tony kevin | 04 October 2015  

High time for an element of compassion to come into the way Australia treats refugees. Putting people in prisons/gulags/detention centres simply for the "crime" of wanting to live in Australia is simply cruelty and must end. We need to see other people as people and end our isolated island mentality (witness the disgraceful way that Troy Newman was treated by the government).

David Crowley | 04 October 2015  

Like many other readers, I support the approach called for by Frank Brennan. There is no justification for continuation of concentration camps in Manus Island and Nauru for asylum seekers seeking refuge in Australia.

Ian Fraser | 04 October 2015  

Couldn't agree more, Fr Frank. The time is long overdue that the detention centres were closed. The time to assess those seeking refugee status properly is also long overdue. Nobody, however, seems to offer a solution as to how those seeking genuine asylum and those seeking a better lifestyle under the guise of refugee status should be treated. They should certainly be treated with dignity and compassion and should be resettled in safety as soon as possible. The costs and resettlement program I believe should be an international effort, shared by all. To close our "gulags" why not transfer all current inmates to the international agency refugee camps in exchange for equivalent numbers of already assessed refugees awaiting placement in any one of a number of countries participating in refugee resettlement programs? Our financial outlays could then be redirected to housing and caring for the needs of those we take for resettlement. I suppose that would all be too easy though!

john frawley | 04 October 2015  

John Howard did, Julia Gillard didn’t, Tony Abbott said, Malcolm Turnbull hasn’t…and there we have it – politicians are to blame, but why did they opt for cruel solutions? Sadly, they responded to voters – not the compassionate or the thoughtful but those who by our silence allowed the mean-hearted to dominate the discussion. We’ve had leadership from Fr. Frank Brennan and Bishop Van Nguyen, who wrote “we seem to have come to believe that harshness and rejection will be enough to deter desperate people from their flight to safety.” However, how prominently have local churches sought a changed mindset about desperate refugees? Are church-goers challenged to stand up and be counted. I want to believe many clergy have made such demands, but how many have failed to do so? Inspired by today’s article, and encouraged by our clergy, let’s be heard in the pubs and clubs, the playing fields and picnic areas where voters – real people with real hearts – can hear us and challenge local Members to change policy. Wishful thinking won’t do it. Thank you, Fr Brennan, for your ongoing work – may its impact ever increase.

Dennis Sleigh | 04 October 2015  

I agree with Frank. As a nation, we have prided ourselves on a 'fair go' for all people for many years. It is time to act now with compassion. Come on Malcolm, we need strong leadership. End these cruel camps of breeding grounds for mental illness. Restore our Aussie pride by doing the right thing.

Therese | 05 October 2015  

Yes, as so many have commented, thanks! And thanks for [the great majority of] those who have backed Frank's stand. Those who have expressessed disagreement? Think again, slow, and hard, and perhaps do some close-up research by approaching those working with refugees still in detenttion, and their children, in our country. Also try to link up with people in communities - including those which are parish-based, and those already supporting those already released and stil-to-be-released into places near where we live, or where we have to travel a bit to do that connecting . Churches, in Australia - we need to hear a much stronger voice of support, and ecumenical and inter-faith backing for such efforts. I want to talk about it next Sunday, at my church - it doesn't need a CAPITAL 'C'!! - small one means we all take on some share in this challenge -to love, and show it! Lynne

Lynne Green | 05 October 2015  

I agree with you Fr Brennan. But aren't Manus and Nauru supposed to be part of the so-called deterrent? Therefore the fact the boats have stopped is no reason to shut them (on that perverted thinking). Isn't that why they will remain open?

George | 05 October 2015  

If the boat arrivals and boat turnbacks are all 'operational matters' kept secret, why not resettle everyone in our offshore concentration camps in secret in Australia? Simpler and cheaper and win/win.

AURELIUS | 05 October 2015  

Well Nauru is supposed to be allowing detainees to go free to leave the centre. Hearing news from within the centre, however, a bus leaving the centre carries only 18 passengers to the township and it takes about 75 minutes to walk there. There is also a lot of paper work and delays in receiving permission to leave. Young female detainees have been raped outside the centre and may feel it is unsafe to leave. Many others can't leave because of disability and ill health. It seems they are just in a larger prison.

Anna | 06 October 2015  

News Limited is reporting today: ‘The Federal Government is in final negotiations to send refugees from Manus Island to the Philippines, in a deal worth around $150 million.’ If the Philippines were to agree to take the 936 men from Manus Island, I would be pleased. I would be more pleased if they were brought to Australia, but neither the Coalition nor Labor is much interested in that solution. We keep talking about regional solutions and the importance of the Refugee Convention. Any regional solution has to build gradually, one agreement at a time. And the Philippines has always taken seriously its obligations as a signatory to the Refugee Convention. I think this is as good a result for these 936 as we could hope for at this time – far preferable to Cambodia.

Frank Brennan | 08 October 2015  

So Frank, if you think the latest human trading crime is good for refugees when there are thousands of displaced people and refugees living on garbage dumps in the Philipines who pays for the whole of life mental health care after the mess we have created. The notion that racist old white men can trade and traffic brown people in the 21st century is sickening, or a member of the bar and the courts of our country to support the crimes is monstrous.

Marilyn | 09 October 2015  

Marilyn, I have said that it would be better for the 936 detainees on Manus Island to be transferred to the Philippines out of detention, rather than remaining in detention on Manus Island. I have said that it would be better for them to be transferred to the Philippines than to Cambodia. I have said that I would prefer that they be transferred to Australia. But given that course is favoured by neither the Coalition nor by the Labor Party, I do not see any prospect of my first preference being met. So my preferences are: 1: resettlement in Australia; 2: resettlement in the Philippines; 3: resettlement in Cambodia: and 4: ongoing detention on Manus Island. Given that my first preference is unachievable, I opt for 2. What do you do?

Frank Brennan SJ | 11 October 2015  

How can we commit to taking 12,000 Syrian refugees with our present attitude to refugees/asylum seekers?

Enid Mulcare | 11 October 2015  

i don't think that a conversation about refugees can be separated out from a conversation about existing homelessness, abuse and poverty within Australia. I agree wholeheartedly with John Frawley's comments, and would add that actions to reduce Australian resentment on the refugee issue needs to be taken just as seriously. Otherwise, radicalisation from a sense of injustice will continue to occur within the underbelly of Australia by a seething swell of the "undeserving poor" born here. Perhaps talk/actions of help for refugees would be better received if accompanied by talk/actions of help for marginalised and under-served Aussies.

mary tehan | 11 October 2015  

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