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Asylum seeker swap a puzzling policy decision

Australia has signed an agreement on refugees with the United States. It allows some refugees processed on Nauru to be resettled in the United States, and Cuban refugees processed at Guantanamo to be resettled in Australia.

Mr Kevin Andrews explained that the exercise would help ensure that asylum seekers who arrive in Australia without visas will not be allowed to settle here. He defended this policy on the grounds that it will deter people-smugglers from encouraging desperate people to risk their lives. Mr. Andrews went on to attack the ALP for being weak on border protection.

This explanation was depressing. It confirmed suspicions that asylum seekers are to be used as pawns in yet another election. Australia’s asylum seeker policy should focus, not on electoral gain, but on the desperate faces of refugees, and on how to discharge our shared international responsibility towards them. Australian policy currently has asylum seekers dumped for processing on Nauru. The latest initiative does nothing to relieve the brutality of this policy, its inefficiency, and its incompatibility with Australia’s responsibility to refugees.

The agreement needs to be set against the experience of asylum seekers who find themselves on Nauru. Immediately after their arrival, they are isolated. They have access only to officials of the Immigration Department to learn of their rights and options. They then suffer the trauma of transfer to an unhospitable environment in Nauru

On Nauru, they may be interviewed by officers of the Department in a process that is unregulated and encourages arbitrary rejection. Its unfairness, natural given the Department’s conflict of interest, has been demonstrated in many previous decisions given on Nauru. Even if they are found to be refugees, the asylum seekers must then wait for other nations to accept them for resettlement. Because most other nations rightly regard these asylum seekers as Australia’s responsibility, most previous refugees were eventually offered resettlement in Australia. But in their long ordeal at Australian hands their health and independence of spirit are corroded.

If they are found not to be refugees, they can expect to be repatriated. But many cannot be sent back because it is too dangerous. Young Sri Lankan men, for example, are at risk from all parties in the civil war. While they wait, they drag out unproductive lives. The cost of Australia’s border control is seen in the pitiable faces of anguished and despairing human beings. In Australian policy their suffering is used as a means to the end of saving a mean-spirited policy.

In this context the swap between the United States and Australia will do little other than arouse false hopes in asylum seekers. We should certainly rejoice with those who are accepted by the United States, just as we would rejoice with those rescued from a drowning that we have ourselves engineered.

But the agreement guarantees nothing, even to those found on Nauru to be refugees. The United States is committed only to consider resettling them. It will presumably apply its own criteria in deciding who to accept. Its own criteria are onerous. To take just one example, it routinely excludes from protection people who have had any contact with a terrorist organisation. Refugees fleeing civil war, as in Sri Lanka, can hardly have survived without such contacts both with state and rebel terrorists.

The fate of those who are found not to be refugees, and of those refugees who are not accepted by the United States, will remain one of torment. Their options are to be returned to a situation from which they have fled in dread, to see their lives wasted on what for them will be island prisons, or to benefit from some act of clemency that offers them their human rights as a privilege.

It is depressing to see refugees regarded of value only as counters in an election campaign. Considering that Australia has contributed to the flight of four million refugees from Iraq, and that it expects the impoverished nations surrounding Iraq to offer them protection, it should not be too much for us to receive asylum seekers compassionately and adjudicate their claims properly in Australia.

On Nauru they hope for an expedient clemency, fear arbitrary brutality and want only respect for their humanity. In Australia that is indeed wanting.



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Existing comments

leaders cannot lead their nations to a future of sweetness and light unless they win the election.
there are votes in this.

I am not able to further comment on Mr Andrews's stunt without inviting the wrath of our elected leaders.

David Arthur | 24 April 2007  

Thank you, Andrew, for voicing clearly what many people, incuding me,feel about this proposal. To me, the proposal not only lacks sensitivity and compassion, but even common sense.

Maryrose | 25 April 2007  

An excellent summary of the ongoing injustice that guides the Howard government on refugee policy and treatment. It is notable that when discussing the treatment of refugees the government people talk only of "people smugglers" and fail to acknowledge the identity, the humanity and the suffering of the refugees themselves. In their compassion-free dealing with the refugee they are able to recognise and calim hypocritically to have a mission to eradicate the other compassion-free player in the tragic saga - the people-smuggler.

mike foale | 26 April 2007  

In recent years Australia's treatment of refugees has been disgraceful and this latest decision simply exacerbates our shame, though I suppose it is of a piece with all that has gone before - a nation which can leave people to drown on a sinking ship will really stop at nothing; why are we surprised? I hope and pray that future governments will create a climate of social responsibility to our own disadvantaged and to the outcasts of other countries too. Keep it up, Eureka Street!

Margot Kerby | 26 April 2007  

It is a scandal, how this country treats its refugees! They are people like us,with two eyes,a nose and a mouth and they should be treated like we hope to be treated.

Theo Dopheide | 03 May 2007  

Why have we just spent 60M on the Christmas island jail (not detetion centers, JAILS)
10 BIllion on Spanish boats.
Are we expecting an invasion?
has Bonsai (Howard) just totally paranoid?

Michael angel | 20 July 2007  

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