Anna Burke: 'It's time for a rational debate about refugees'



Anna Burke has represented the seat of Chisholm in the House of Representatives for the ALP since 1998. She is the former Speaker of the House (2012–2013), and has been a consistent advocate for asylum seekers. She will retire at the next election. 

Anna BurkeQ. We have just seen the Papua New Guinea government find that the detention of the asylum seekers on Manus Island is illegal. Do you think that shows that there is a more robust sense of human rights in PNG than Australia?

A. No, but I think it demonstrates that the law understands better the UN Charter of Human Rights than either the PNG or the Australian governments.

Nobody has taken this case about offshore processing to the High Court here, nor could they because technically it is in PNG, but as you saw with the Malaysian Solution, when they took it to the High Court here it was overturned.

So I think our legal, constitutional framework — I wouldn't say it was more lacking than the PNG government in any way size, shape or form, I just think it demonstrates that if you bring these into the realm of the legal sphere, then the legal system says you have to abide by the UN Charter of Human Rights, which neither government has been doing.

Does it reflect badly on Australia that we have no articulated set of legal rights in our constitution, such as freedom from arbitrary detention without trial?

I think our constitution is lacking in many areas, but I think this gets down to basically, we have — on all sides of politics — not been abiding by the UN Charters that we have adopted and signed and that we request other countries to follow. Instead of maintaining a humane and dignified approach to this difficult, complex situation we have played political football with it. 

So I think there are issues to be addressed in the longer term, but in the here and now we need to deal with the 800 people on Manus who have been living in this horrendous, limbo situation for almost four years now.


"Instead of maintaining a humane and dignified approach to this difficult, complex situation we have played political football with it." — Anna Burke


Many people have spoken up in support of asylum seekers since the offshore camps on Manus and Nauru were reopened. Petitions have been signed, letters have been sent to members of Parliament, demonstrations have been held ... Yet it seems the government is not listening, and has never been listening. Do you think this ideological commitment to offshore processing has been run at the cost of democracy? 

I think what the political process is, they see that, yes, the mood is changing, but they don't think it is changing significantly enough that it will impact them at the ballot box. They think by adopting a more humane approach they will lose votes at the ballot box. They would argue that what they are doing is actually democratic.

The point has been made by several legal minds, including Professor Triggs, that the use of arbitrary detention without trial so as to deter others from seeking asylum and coming by boat is a breach of the separation of powers. Normally the component of deterrence in a sentence of imprisonment can only be made by a court, and not by the Parliament. Do you see that the principle of the separation of powers has been breached?

I am not a lawyer, and I respect completely Gillian Triggs' views. What I think is the difficulty in this situation is that we have not got a system of detention for processing, we've got a system of indefinite detention. I have never said we shouldn't have some form of processing situation — although I have always been opposed to offshore processing. But what we have now got is this prolonged incarceration.

On Wednesday last week the Iranian asylum seeker, Omid, set himself on fire in desperation as he had given up hope after three years in detention. He was not transferred to the mainland for 24 hours and was brain dead, I believe, on arrival in Brisbane hospital. Do you see a systemic failure here, in the care of asylum seekers?

Yes, and I think the medical profession is now also saying that what is being offered in terms of getting approval to take people off the island [is not good enough], and that Nauru absolutely does not have the medical facilities to be looking after the volume of people that we sent there, and on this occasion the system has failed.

It seems that the harsh treatment of asylum seekers is a response to the racist attitudes of Sydney shock jocks and focus groups. It appears to be playing a 'race card' so as to appeal to particular vote banks. Is it possible for either party to get back to policies that have a moral basis and provide ethical leadership to the community, rather than dog whistling the worst elements?

I think that from the Howard days of Tampa we have seen that the race card has been used to create fear and loathing and mistrust. The creation of asylum seekers as 'other', calling them 'illegals', running that whole argument. I would say — with my political hat on — that the Liberal Party has been far worse at that than the Labor Party. The Labor Party hasn't gone down that path. But having said that, everybody plays politics with this situation.


"Asylum seekers on Nauru are still living in tents. The theory is that this will stop people drowning at sea. But it is appalling that we are putting people's lives in this situation." — Anna Burke


We have now got a world wide refugee problem — we don't have one here but we do have one world wide. It is now time to start having a rational debate about what we do with these people as opposed to playing the race card. But tragically I think we are going to go into an election where again asylum seekers are going to be used as political footballs, as opposed to having a calm debate with the populace about why Australia needs to be doing its bit and can.

I talk to men on Manus Island every day and I am aware that they do not have adequate food or clothes or medical care. A very large proportion are becoming addicted to pharmaceutical medications and are developing full blown mental illnesses. There is a massive problem of untreated injuries, skin diseases and chronic pain. Do you think the Australian public has any awareness of the sickness and squalor in which these people are living?

No, because the government has closed down information. The UN has been there and has reported now on many occasions. They are going back — I think they are there as we speak. I hope they will report and indicate what conditions these individuals are living in. Manus is bad but Nauru is worse. The majority of asylum seekers on Nauru are still living in tents. The theory is that this will stop people drowning at sea. But it is appalling, that we are putting these people's lives in this situation.

A German friend explained to me that after Dachau, all the concentration camps in the Second World War were placed outside Germany, in Poland and Ukraine and other countries, and that information about them was kept secret from the ordinary police and military. Do you think that offshore processing has parallels with the strategies of Nazi Germany, in placing the camps away from the mainland and making their internal operations secret?

I think it has the same political strategy that anything does where it is 'out of sight, out of mind'. The journalists are not allowed in, we are not having information because of 'on-water matters', I think it is a situation where these individuals have been dehumanised. They take away their being — having numbers, referring to them as illegals. It is a political strategy so that the populace doesn't really understand what is being done in their country's name.

How can either party put forward a platform that is truly international in focus and which takes into account the large scale movements of people engendered by war and political persecution which are causing refugees to flee their homelands?

Well, we did it post World War Two, but it is now an international problem. This is something that needs to be done on an international scale. Australia already has got an approach through the Bali Process in our region, we should be utilising that with our neighbouring countries who all have these issues as well, so as to adopt a rational approach. The Donald Trumps of the world want to put up walls, put up barriers, but it is not going to stop refugees. It is not going to resolve the situation we have. We are wealthy enough and big enough to find a resolution for this.

It is also about ending the conflicts so that people aren't having to flee. It is not just a situation of housing refugees. What are the root causes of refugees? No one talks about that. And until we actually start talking about these much bigger issues then we will constantly see political posturing across the globe — not just in Australia — about how to deter instead of how to prevent.


Di CousensDi Cousens is an honorary fellow with the Australian Catholic University, a university administrator at RMIT and former vice-chair of the Buddhist Council of Victoria. After meeting refugees in detention in Australia she became friends with detainees on Manus Island through social media. For over a year she have been engaged in supporting them in various ways, mostly through daily conversations.

Topic tags: Di Cousens, asylum seekers, refugees, Anna Burke, Manus Island, Nauru



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Existing comments

Thoughtful comments by Anna Burke. It's a shame she is leaving, although she hasn't had a lot of influence on Labor's recent policies. Labor can't hold its head high on its treatment of refugees while in office. Following the bottom feeding path of Abbott, Morrison and Dutton is no excuse for Labor's approach, which I think she recognises. Bottom line: we are not meeting our UN obligations to refugees. Just on a minor point, Anna Burke was not the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives. That honour went to Joan Child, the Speaker during the Hawke Government (and the first Speaker in the new Parliament House).
Brett | 06 May 2016

Thanks for extensive article but unfortunately you forget somthing worse which government has done and nobody has spoken about that which is discrimination and arbitrarily collecting .first day when we arrived to chrismas we were 5800individuals but this goverment separated people in two groups and got them allowed to resettlement in Australia but sent us in Nauru .nobody from authorities couldnot answer to this great discrimination .why now we are here in nauru and manus just 1600 individuals remain here as movment corps .
Sh | 06 May 2016

Australia's asylum seeker policy is the envy of many European countries & will probably be copied by the UK. Leave it as it is!
Telh | 06 May 2016

Congratulations to Anna Burke on her parliamentary career and her support for asylum seekers. Unfortunately, not enough of her Labor colleagues have supported the humane treatment of people fleeing persecution. With an election looming, Australians should get mad about this issue and let local members know that treating people as less than human is not on. We do need to find a global solution but meanwhile our fellow human beings are languishing on Manus Island and Nauru. Let's ask our local members "why?"
Pam | 06 May 2016

Thanks Di and Anna. An excellent interview and some very insightful responses! Tragically, since Howard's time, the Coalition and Labor have been competing to see who can be more brutal to asylum seekers in our name. For more insights into this brutal competition, please read Walleed Aly’s comments on the following linked article that shows how both sides of politics have been responsible for this dark chapter in Australia’s history - a still ongoing saga that is destroying the lives of desperate people, and also destroying our once excellent international reputation:
Grant Allen | 07 May 2016

This interview and your other recent article on asylum seekers in detention on Manus and Nauru have shone a great deal of light on an extremely important issue. I am sorry Anna is leaving federal politics. We need more people like her in the federal parliament.
Edward Fido | 07 May 2016

Burke and Cousens are correct in that the only permanent solution is for people not to have to flee their homelands. But their logical position is weird: in seeking to believe that Australian federal politicians are almost intractable in self-servingly pandering to racist elements in society (say, in western Sydney which has a lot of seats), the only way they can hope for the situation in the lands of origin to improve is to believe that the politicians there are morally superior to the ones here, that they are capable of changing in ways that ours can't. That's not credible. Politicians in unstable polities have to be even more morally nimble than ours in order to keep their positions. Far better to accept that our politicians (and western Sydneysiders) are people of good will who need to be persuaded that non-deterrence will not mean open borders. That is an impossible argument to make but good luck anyway in trying to make it as it'll be more honourable than slandering sceptics as racists. However, the bluff of 'deterrence' will be called when three square meals in incarceration becomes preferable to home, as may become the case if overseas instability worsens.
Roy Chen Yee | 07 May 2016

This is wonderful interview alongside your incisive article responding to Dutton. However I wish to correct something your German friend told you about the Nazi camps. Following Dachau a huge network of concentration camps was established inside Germany, and these (just like Dachau) were often located close to urban areas, such as Buchenwald, which lies just a ten minute bus journey from the centre of Weimar. In these internal concentration camps the inmates were either worked to death, or died slowly from the shocking conditions.The camps outside Germany were a different matter. Known as death camps, they existed for the sole purpose of exterminating whoever was sent there. Maybe the Nazis (yes, even the Nazis) feared the consequences of public opinion had they established death camps inside Germany. If this was so, then Dutton's own network of camps both inside Australia and within nearby vassal states does bear a resemblance to the Nazi horrors, whether the Liberal-Labor coalition likes it or not. Nonetheless, so far the scale of Australia's crimes are not in the same league as the Nazi camps. At least so far.......
Robert Hughes | 09 May 2016

The refugee/asylum seeker question is undoubtedly complicated, but what should not be complicated or obfuscated, is the inhumane treatment of these seekers of a safe haven.The Manus-Nauru situation rather reminds me of my recent visit to both the Berlin Hohenschoenhausen Memorial housing a Stasi prison and the Stasi Museum in Lichtenberg. Both these places are vivid reminders of man's inhumanity to man during the Cold War, relying on secrecy and surveillance. Tellingly the former is now a member of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience. If Peter Dutton is angry and frustrated, how much more so must be these victims of Australia's harsh policy? What I do not understand is why these people have not been processed; why they are considered "Illegal" immigrants when as a signatory to the UNHCR Convention, they are not, at least according to the Refugee Council.And if the UNHCR Convention does not suit Australia, why don't we resign or try to change it? Let's hope the Manus Island detainees are successful with their writ of habeas corpus on May 23.
Helen Enright | 09 May 2016

What I find confusing is how Australia spends millions of dollars creating UNHuman Rights law after the experience of Jewish refugees in WW2 being returned to Nazi Germany, and now is in breach of them. What is the point? What do we say to our children when they ask how all these thing can be done to innocent, poor refugees? And how can we put ourselve forward as Human Rights Chair at the UN?
Julie McNeill | 10 May 2016

This interview highlights a very shameful policy pursued by our 2 major political parties. It should be remembered that the detention centre policy was initiated by former ALP immigration minister, Nick Bolkus, in the early 1990s. Both the ALP and the "Liberal" Party should be ashamed of how asylum seekers have been treated ever since. It is good, however, that Anna Burke has been an advocate for a more humane approach. It is not the fault of asylum seekers that they are in the dreadful situation they are in and they are not "illegals" as so many dishonest ultra - conservative politicians have claimed. Any people whose lives have been torn apart by war, repression or natural disasters have the right under international law to escape from danger. Australian leaders need to stop endorsing every war started by the US Military Industrial Complex or its policies to overthrow democratic countries with right wing dictatorships for the profits of US corporations and the extension of US global power. Such wars have contributed greatly to the current huge refugee problem. We should become an independent and non-aligned nation and establish refugee hostels not quasi prisons in Australia to humanely care for them..
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 10 May 2016

So thoughtful Anna, and as always, delivering from the heart; a passionate realist for the human person and for justice toward asylum seekers.
Vicki Shacklock | 10 May 2016

"It is now time to start having a rational debate about what we do with these people as opposed to playing the race card" Of course! But isn't this a general problem in Australian politics? Rational debate is in short supply because its so easy to get away with irrational debate. One cannot choose unilaterally to have a rational debate
barry hindess | 10 May 2016

In a campaign where neither of the major parties will want to talk about their inhumane policies towards refugees, this is an important contribution to the campaign discourse. Anna Burke makes the point that the Australian formula for border protection is not a single, narrow issue; it is interconnected with all the issues about how we are to live together as global citizens. If borders are increasingly irrelevant to the movement of trade, money and communications, we must turn attention to policies that deal with the global movement of people. Humanely, that is!
Jean Ker Walsh | 10 May 2016

Thank you Anna Burke for your comments, views on asylum seekers. We need more like you - and Angela Merkel. The interviewer was incorrect in stating that after Dachau concentration camps were located outside Germany. There were many in Germany including some of the most notorious examples: Buchenwald, Belsen, Ravensbruck, Flossenburg, Sachsenhausen, Oranienburg - many more.
John Nicholson | 10 May 2016

This is a complex problem made worse by the way it has been politicized. Both parties and greens should get together to work out a good solution. We are not respecting our UN charter obligations. This small number of desperate people should be protected and welcomed by this affluent society.
james biggs | 10 May 2016

A very sensitive and sensible piece from a Labor dignitary. No doubt Anna is leaving before the Party expels her for such a humane public proclamation. Pity the rest of the pollies of all colours don't posses her common sense.
john frawley | 10 May 2016

Thank you Di. It seems to me that those who oppose off shore processing/detention of refugees need political muscle. So the idea comes:- * Those thus opposed vote as they choose in House of Reps BUT PLACE LIBS, NATS, & LAB LAST. BVC
Brian V. Cotter | 10 May 2016

I omitted "... IN THE SENATE.
Brian V. Cotter | 10 May 2016

Thank you for this interview. It is comforting to know there are people working to change our major political parties' attitude to cruelty and inhumane approach to asylum seekers. So it's OK that they suffer so long as I can't see them. Shame Mr Dutton. Shame.
wendy Fleming | 10 May 2016

I am aware I should not mention a political party as a good thing but in light of the 2 major parties actions against the asylum seekers as noted above I would like to quote Julian Burnside when he presented at a writers festival this year in Beaconsfield here in Tasmania. In relation to the refugee situation in Australia Julian said that although he is not a member of any political party and was a staunch Liberal supporter in earlier days he encouraged everyone present to vote for the Greens in the upcoming federal election. They are the only party standing up for those imprisoned offshore by our government.
Tom | 10 May 2016

Short of a global solution that I can't even imagine at the moment, there is clearly justification for maintaining a strict prevention regime. But the plight of the people on Manus and Nauru is surely separable from that. Why is neither major party proposing the obvious solution, which is to let the poor buggers into Australia as a one-off? It's a no-brainer, both politically and morally!
Patrick Buckridge | 10 May 2016

The need for a strategy is important. The first stage is for Burnside, Costello, Hanson-Young etc to apologise for calling those who disagree with them racists rednecks etc. Without that there is no way voters in the outer suburbs will ever listen to so called refugee advocates. The second stage is more difficult.
angela | 11 May 2016

I agree Angela, name calling just underlines the differences and does nothing to get to a fair, compassionate, humane outcome. While we clearing out the offensive names, can we also stop calling asylum seekers "illegal immigrants" and "queue jumpers" and look at the reality of their situations? This would be a good starting point. I don't mind being called a "bleeding heart" and a "do gooder" as I really don't see them as offensive terms, but I know others who do, so in the interests of generosity we should include them as well.
Brett | 11 May 2016

Anna Burke is a true caring Labor person. I would love to see her as ALP Leader/PM. It's such a loss that she's getting out of it all. I wish her well, dear Anna.
Louw | 13 May 2016

Like me, did Anna think that the imprisoned 800 might be settled by 'drip-feeding' them gradually into Australia, after the boats had been stopped? Wasn't I silly?!
Claude Rigney | 30 May 2016


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