Time to defuse Nauru and Manus Island time bombs



On the weekend, I joined Robert Manne, Tim Costello and John Menadue in calling for an end to the limbo imposed on proven refugees on Nauru and Manus Island. I think this can be done while keeping the boats stopped. I think it ought be done.

Peter Dutton on 7.30Appearing on the ABC 7.30 program last Thursday after The Guardian's release of 2000 incident reports from Nauru, Peter Dutton, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, told presenter Leigh Sales, 'I would like to get people off Nauru tomorrow but I have got to do it in such a way that we don't restart boats.'

He went on to say, 'We have had discussions with a number of other countries, but what we're not going to do is enter into an arrangement that sends a green light to people smugglers.' Dutton appreciates that Nauru and Manus Island are ticking time bombs.

During the election campaign, Malcolm Turnbull said that we could not be misty eyed about the situation on these islands, a situation of Australia's making and a situation funded recurrently with the Australian cheque book. Now that the election is over, neither our politicians nor their strategic advisers can afford wilfully to close their eyes to the situation.

The majority of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island have now been proved to be refugees. They are not going to accept cheques to go back home and face renewed persecution. That's why they fled in the first place. Most of these people have had their lives on hold, in appalling circumstances, for over three years. It's time to act. Ongoing inaction will send a green light to desperate people to do desperate things.

While respecting those refugee advocates and their supporters who cannot countenance stopping the boats coming from Indonesia, I think it is time to see if we can design a way of getting the asylum seekers off Nauru and Manus Island 'in such a way that we don't restart boats', ensuring that we continue to send a red light to people smugglers in Java.

The precedent is the Howard government's successful plan to empty the Nauru and Manus Island processing centres while winding back its original Pacific Solution, ensuring the boats stayed stopped.

To set a new direction, we have first to put aside the undesirable and unworkable aspects of the present policy settings. Are not our military and intelligence services (in cooperation with Indonesian officials) sufficiently on the job that they can stop people smugglers in their tracks, stopping boats from being filled, stopping boats from setting out and turning back any that set out, regardless of whether proven refugees on Nauru and Manus Island are resettled elsewhere (even ultimately in Australia)?


"Nauru and Manus Island no longer perform any credible, morally coherent, or useful task in securing Australia's borders. Even talk of sending signals is misplaced."


The suggestion that those camps need to remain filled in order to send a message to people smugglers so that the boats will stay stopped is not only morally unacceptable; it is strategically questionable. Those proven to be refugees should be resettled as quickly as practicable, and that includes taking up New Zealand's offer of 150 places a year — just as John Howard did when he accepted New Zealand's offer to take 131 from the Tampa.

In 2012, Angus Houston proposed a resurrected Pacific solution to the Gillard government for two purposes only. He saw it as a temporary circuit breaker until the boats could be stopped and turned back lawfully and safely. His expert panel did not propose it as a permanent precondition for being able to stop boats and turn them back. Secondly, he saw the maintenance of the offshore processing centres once the boats had stopped as a necessary part of the jigsaw in designing a regional solution for the protection, processing and resettlement of refugees in South East Asia. Given that there has been no continuing flow of irregular maritime arrivals (IMAs), Houston saw no warrant for keeping proven refugees on Nauru or Manus Island for years on end, without any end in prospect. The Houston Panel stated:


The Panel's view is 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. It is also an important measure to diminish the prospect of further loss of life at sea. Over time, further development of such facilities in Nauru would need to take account of the ongoing flow of IMAs to Australia and progress towards the goal of an integrated regional framework for the processing of asylum claims.


Given that there has been no 'ongoing flow of IMAs to Australia', the only case for maintaining processing facilities on Nauru and Manus Island, in line with the Houston recommendations, would be as part of 'an integrated regional framework for the processing of asylum claims'. To date, the Abbott and Turnbull governments have done NOTHING to establish that framework. Nauru and Manus Island no longer perform any credible, morally coherent, or useful task in securing Australia's borders. Even talk of sending signals is misplaced. The main signal is being sent to Australian voters, not to asylum seekers waiting in Java whose attempts to commission people smugglers have been thwarted by Indonesian officials and Australian intelligence, and whose boats would be turned back in any event.

Last Thursday evening Dutton said 'we have had discussions with a number of other countries' but then went on to say, 'I think the situation is that people have paid people smugglers for a migration outcome. They want to come to Australia, they don't want to go to New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Malaysia, anywhere else.' It's time for Turnbull, Shorten and Di Natale to agree on a timetable. If the government is unable to resettle the proven refugees elsewhere in countries like New Zealand and Canada by the end of the year, the refugees should be resettled in Australia. If there are still asylum seekers awaiting determination of their claims by the end of the year, they should be brought to Christmas Island for processing. To keep them any longer on Nauru and Manus Island is to tempt fate adverse to their interests, adverse to the national interest of PNG and Nauru, and adverse to Australia's international standing and sense of ourselves.

Dutton's status quo can't work much longer, and he must know that. His advisers know that in this realm of human activity, the red and green lights require prior calculation of what people will do to save their own lives and to get on with their lives. It's much more complex than the census, and it's much more complicated than being re-elected. The stakes are very high, and not just for those proven refugees we continue to punish so publicly and so unapologetically pretending that we are treating them decently. Turnbull and Dutton have a mandate to stop the boats. They have no mandate to make these people suffer more, in our name, for no appreciable benefit to anybody.

To keep them on hold any longer in such circumstances will be to send a green light to desperate, trapped people doing desperate things beyond the control of the governments and service providers paid with Australian tax dollars to keep them out of sight and out of mind. It's time for our politicians to agree to defuse the ticking time bombs of Nauru and Manus Island.


Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is professor of law at Australian Catholic University and adjunct professor at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture.

Listen: Frank Brennan joins Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Nauru, Manus Island, Robert Manne, Tim Costello, John Menadue



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Existing comments

Once again we see the absolute necessity for keeping the history of our decision making. Thank you for making clear why the detention centres were set up, and what should have been set up but wasn't. It's time for the Government to do its duty and stop this inhumane and deadly dithering.
Joan Seymour | 15 August 2016

Sorry Frank but your acceptance that it is ever legal, moral or ethical to stop refugees makes me sick.
Marilyn | 15 August 2016

Pushing away all other refugees to punish them because we have already tortured 2,000 of them is disgusting.
Marilyn | 15 August 2016

Well, good luck with that Frank. Two months ago you “urged people of goodwill when casting their vote to consider the desirability of a parliament which is not readily controlled by the government of the day” (Eureka Street, June 9) and, lo and behold, you got exactly what you wanted. But what a mess the uncontrolled new parliament is; a prime minister with a majority of one, faced with a senate which will dance to a tune called by a group of characters who should never be allowed anywhere near the legislative sausage factory and at the same time constantly having to look over his shoulder at a cabal of disaffected, resentful juveniles in his own party who will bring him down at the first opportunity. A clear case, Frank, of be careful of that for which you wish. The best chance the asylum seekers had was a thumping Liberal victory giving Turnbull all the authority he needed to dump minister Dutton (who, incidentally, walked out on Kevin Rudd’s apology to the first nation people), see off the Abbott faction and draw together those elements in both Liberal and Labor ranks who are appalled at Australia’s treatment of the refugees and who would willingly bend every effort to achieving a just and humane outcome. However, you may be right, perhaps the status quo won’t work much longer but do you really believe that an Australia dragged kicking and screaming to resolving this issue will be capable of a conclusion of which we can all be proud? As I say, good luck with that one.
Paul | 16 August 2016

This government's seeming paralysis about how to deal with the people on Nauru is beginning to resemble the United States' drawn out attempts to close Guantanamo. It takes real guts to say, "It's a balls-up. We've got to deal with it differently."
Paddy Byers | 16 August 2016

I totally agree that these people should be rehomed. We also want the NZers returned to New Zealand. Cruelty and injustice are not needed in this world. Aust. govt. should be totally ashamed of their handling of the refugee situation.
Noeline hampion | 16 August 2016

Thank you Frank. I support your use of your public voice to put reason and sense into this urgent situation. I hope you are able to present this to the Government in some form (other than hoping they read Eureka Street). It is the obvious answer to an inhumane situation, and offers them a way out that is real, and also saves face. Very wise.
Pauline Small | 16 August 2016

A very good article, but I wish it had also dealt with the need to generate a consensus of some sort with the Opposition and the cross-benches. The more we can lower the political heat the easier it will be to find a solution. As it stands, neither major political party will give an inch lest the other makes political capital of it.
Frank Golding | 16 August 2016

Wonderful article, and after reading Tolstoy this morning. The article supports the age old notion of the quality of mercy.
marlene | 16 August 2016

Dear Fr. Frank, My wife and I watched and listened as you spoke last night on 'Lateline'. We totally agree with your stance on the continuing detentions on Narau and Manus . However the issue of refugees living in camps in Indonesia remains a matter of concern. No doubt, like many of the accepted as Refugees on Manus and Narau, there are many in Indonesia who are also genuine refugees . Surely we can do a much better job working with Indonesia to process these people humanely. We think the considerable financial cost involved would be a better use of Tax Payers' money than the current fiasco. We believe that there must be a way of allowing these people a better future while destroying the "people smugglers" methodology. Keep up the good work.
Gavin | 16 August 2016

Very good article , Fr Brennan; and you are right on the button (as usual). The imperative is to de-esclate the politics of this and stop the parties making very cheap "dog-whistle" debating points against the "softness" of the other side, even when it makes complete sense. It s interesting that Abbott now comes out to say how bad his decision was to oppose the very sensible Malaysian solution; also opposed by the Greens for highly spurious reasons. In fact this was political bastardry of the highest order, and I`m not sure the Abbott is actually apologising for probably the nastiest and most irresponsible bit of politics I have seen in my 25 years in Australia; which is really saying something!
Eugene | 16 August 2016

Congratulations Frank! Your constant, intelligent and passionate advocacy for our fellow human beings in detention is a voice for the voiceless; both those in detention and those of us who feel helpless to make a real difference in this critical issue. Both in Australia and in work overseas, I hang my head in shame at the abuse of these already traumatised fellow human beings; as I repeat 'not in my name' my head is raised in hope, to the voice of people like you, as I pray your words will spark a sense of shared humanity and compassion will prevail.
Maureen Waddington | 16 August 2016

Thank you Frank. When the government uses the word sovereign, to speak of rights and defence, protection and prosecution, as a blunt weapon against the defenceless and homeless >refugees, we have definitely lost our way. Babies and children are the enemy of Australia. As we spend billions on these gaols,sovereignty is used to sidestep and annul our role in indefinite detention and torture of men women and children.Pushing our weight over fledgling nations. As in Timor Leste, with the plundering of gas fields, on Nauru and Manus island we rack up unexpected moral and social debt also, and our global partners and friends, grappling with much more, have lost trust in our reasoning and "fair go"ethos. We spend billions on going to war yet refuse to acknowledge the effect on civilians?Force them back.We blunder along and waste so much.Refugees and convicts are exactly the reason Australia was colonised. We speak of the evil,inhumane treatment by ISIS and yet we seem to do the same.
Catherine | 16 August 2016

Paul, once Malcolm Turnbull during the election said that we should not be misty eyed about proven refugees being warehoused for over three years on Nauru and Manus Island, I realised that the Coalition he led could not be trusted to resolve the issue after the election. Bill Shorten did not want any crack of light between the Labor and Coalition positions, even declining to discuss the New Zealand option. Thus I urged people to vote in such a way that there would be representatives in the parliament who would bring pressure to bear on the major parties. I stand by that assessment. It is ludicrous to claim that I was urging people to vote for candidates even less sympathetic to refugees. It is fanciful to suggest that the wilfully blind Malcolm Turnbull would have dumped Dutton and done the right thing if only he had been given a thumping mandate. With such a mandate, he would simply have kept his head in the sand and continued to label the rest of us ‘misty eyed’.
Frank Brennan SJ | 16 August 2016

Frank, at no time did I suggest that you had urged people to deliberately vote for unsympathetic candidates, forgive me if I gave that impression. But given the ill-will in the Australian electorate, that was always going to be the outcome of such a strategem. For example, in my own state of Queensland, I was able to find eight senate candidates (below the line) from groups claiming a committment to closing Nauru and Manus but none received more than a miserable .0 something of a per cent of a quota. Instead, Queensland foisted One Nation on the country for another term. Thus, it is your assessment that such a tactic would result in a bloc of members sufficient to pressure the major parties that is fanciful. I will state again my belief that such a bloc already exists. Up to 30 Labor members, we are told, have expressed either publicly or privately deep misgivings over Nauru and Manus and would, given leadership, support change. I cannot believe that a similar number doesn't exist in Liberal ranks. I agree that Turnbull's callous "misty eyed" remark coupled with Shorten's dread at appearing to be soft on "border protection" would not give anyone confidence that that these two have the capacity in themselves to give that leadership: but I will stand by my assessment that a clear Turnbull majority could have given those members disgusted with Australia's cruelty to refugees the leverage necessary to force leadership on them.
Paul | 16 August 2016

That is a succinct analysis Frank. Whether Turnbull and Dutton will ever totally stop the boats is a moot point. But you are dead right about the humanitarian issue of "out of sight out of mind." So given that the majority are genuine refugees, they qualify to come here. The next issue that arises is unemployment and how to gainfully occupy these folk. Unemployment is over 12% in Cairns, up to 20% in some parts of rural Australia. Absorbing these refugees sounds simple but then we have to accommodate them, educate them, put them on Social Security, socialise them, feed them. All in a society that is currently down on its proverbial knees due to a misguided idealistic free trade policy that gives laughable protection for Australian Industry. All things considered we have to take them in and bear our share of the burden. Even backpackers that visit pick fruit, undertake piece work and shoulder jobs that Australians consider beneath them. So Messrs Turnbull and Dutton need to turn their minds to job creation and gainful employment, not just to the oppression and injustice that flourishes in these substandard Island camps.
Francis Armstrong | 16 August 2016

Nothing can be done to help the genuine refugees until the voters of Australia come to realise what the detainee are going through. The cold-hearted politicians are concerned only with votes, and are determined to block all access and information from becoming available.
Robert Liddy | 16 August 2016

Thanks Paul. You may be right; maybe. We'll never know. But let's remain committed to a more humane asylum policy.
Frank Brennan SJ | 16 August 2016

Thank you Father Frank, John Menadue and Rev. Tim Costello for your attempts to end the shocking situation regarding the refugees on Manus Island and on Nauru we are giving these people no justice no hope and no dignity. We are also causing serious mental health issues. Shame on our Government and Australia is behaving like a jail for refugees who are entitled to safety.
Margaret M. Coffey | 16 August 2016

This article ignores why Howard felt it necessary to implement "tough border protection". Mass immigration or "the free movement of labour", is the key instrument for implementing the Right's agenda: underming wages and conditions, driving up rents and house prices, widening economic inequality, allowing the wealthy to avoid tax, driving up the cost of infrastructure and government services leading to privatisation and cuts to services. Feigning concern over "Asian immigration", and "unauthorised arrivals", implementing "tough border protection",and railing against "Muslim immigration" are just confidence tricks that Right Wing politicians use to deceive voters into believing they are opposed to mass immigration.Allow the Australian people make an informed choice at the ballot box to decide the size of Australia's immigration intake and the economic, environmental, and social cost they must pay.
Jerzy | 17 August 2016

I do find it sickening when men who should know better claim we can mend one crime by committing other crimes.
Marilyn | 18 August 2016

My Lateline interview is available at http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2016/s4520153.htm. I believe in rectifying one undoubted wrong at a time, seeking real outcomes rather than theoretical, unachievable panaceas.
Frank Brennan SJ | 21 August 2016

I note that on last night's ABC Q&A, Labor's Shadow Health Minister answering questions from Tony Jones on offshore detention and processing said: CATHERINE KING: If you're going to have offshore processing and, yes, Labor agrees with offshore processing - as difficult as that it is, we agree with that - but we don't agree with people being harmed in this way. It is not okay. TONY JONES: So was it the Labor Party's plan to leave these people... CATHERINE KING: No. TONY JONES: ...in offshore processing centres for a short period of time and then resettle them in Australia. CATHERINE KING: It was our - it was not our plan to resettle them in Australia but it was our plan to have them resettled, absolutely and that’s been - that is...and the fact that they were not and have not been over the course of the past three years, I think it is incumbent for the Government to get on with the job of finding credible, third party countries to resettle people but also to make sure that people are safe, treated humanely and treated with dignity while they’re in detention. So this is my question to Catherine King and Bill Shorten: If Peter Dutton and Malcolm Turnbull haven't succeeded in resettling the proven refugees on Manus Island and Nauru in appropriate countries by Christmas, shouldn't the Labor Party support and demand that these refugees be resettled in Australia on the same terms as those boat people who have been processed in Australia? The inhumanity of the situation has reached the stage that we are all entitled NOW to a simple YES or NO.
Frank Brennan SJ | 23 August 2016

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