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Close the camps now and stop the posturing



Both the Turnbull government and the Shorten opposition are committed to 'stopping the boats'. Tony Abbott's mantra is now the political orthodoxy on both sides of the political aisle in Canberra. Labor knows it has no chance of winning an election unless its commitment to keeping the boats stopped is as firm as the government's.

Fiona Katauskas cartoonThe political difference is no longer over stopping the boats. Both sides are committed to takebacks and turnbacks, usually to Indonesia, provided the practices of the Australian Border Force and defence forces are safe, legal and transparent. The political brawl is about keeping refugees on Nauru and Manus Island without a permanent solution, and the claim that this is a necessary precondition for keeping the boats stopped.

Peter Dutton, the Minister for Many Things — Home Affairs, Immigration and Border Protection — smelt blood last week after Labor's newest recruit in the House of Representatives, Ged Kearney, told Parliament in her first speech: 'I doubt we can afford the ongoing cost to our national psyche of subjecting men, women, and children to years of punitive indefinite detention. We must, as a priority, move the asylum seekers off Manus and Nauru to permanent resettlement and ensure that indefinite detention never happens again.'

Kearney was backed by Labor frontbencher Linda Burney when interviewed by David Speers on SkyNews. Labor then doctored the transcript to downplay the commitment to a deadline for emptying the camps on Nauru and Manus Island.

Then following a death of a refugee on Manus Island, the Greens' Adam Bandt had a go at Dutton in Question Time asking, 'Is it now government policy to leak to the media about the death of someone under your care and not notify next of kin, and doesn't this fundamental lack of human decency show that there's simply no line you won't cross?'

Dutton has no time for what he regards as the moral superiority of the Greens and the Labor Left when it comes to refugee policy. Taking the moral high ground, Dutton responded, 'I haven't put anyone on Manus Island; you did. I am charged with getting those people off, and I'm doing it. This government — not the government that you were in coalition with, the Rudd and the Gillard governments — has brokered a deal to get 1200 people off Manus and Nauru.'

With by-elections just around the corner, including a couple in which the sitting Labor members are on a knife edge, the government is keen to exploit any perception that the opposition parties in parliament are a threat to secure borders and an ordered migration program with strong community approval. The government even received some assistance late in the week from the disgraced Roman Quaedvlieg who had been sacked as Commissioner of the Border Force. He wrote an opinion piece for the Fairfax press declaring, 'Labor needs to find a way to reconcile its internal policy differences and its policy language on this issue or it risks inviting another wave of boats to our borders and it will have to grapple with the consequences if it wins the forthcoming federal election.'


"The boats are stopped, not because refugees on Nauru and Manus Island are being treated badly but because the diplomatic arrangements with Indonesia are in place."


There are 939 refugees and asylum seekers still waiting in limbo on Nauru and 716 on Manus Island. This caseload includes 137 children. Most of them have now been there for almost five years. Having accepted 249 proven refugees in the last year, the USA is committed to taking up to another 1000. This will leave another 655 people to be resettled in third countries or to be returned to their home country. So the point of difference is merely over what is to become of these 655 people.

Quaedvlig told Fairfax that the US might be convinced to take more refugees 'if the uplifts and settlements go smoothly'. Meanwhile Dutton says, 'I don't want to see anyone on Manus or Nauru. I want them off and we've brokered a deal with the US to take 1200 people. There are no other third countries who are immediately available. That's the reality.' But there is another third country available: New Zealand.

All three of New Zealand's recent prime ministers have offered to take 150 refugees a year from the Pacific camps. When New Zealand has dealt directly with PNG repeating the offer, Australia has vetoed the suggestion on the basis that refugees resettled in New Zealand would be able to travel without a visa to Australia. Dutton continues to argue that this could send a message to the people smugglers. That was never a problem for John Howard when he accepted a similar New Zealand offer. The boats did not start up again.

At the Senate Estimates hearing last year, Air Vice Marshal Osborne, Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders Joint Agency Task Force, said, 'Our ability to detect, intercept and turn back people smuggling boats is stronger than ever. We have a committed and highly capable civil maritime surveillance and border security response fleet with access to the combined resources of the Australian Border Force and the Australian Defence Force.' At the Senate Estimates hearing last week, he told the Senate: 'Our figures have not changed since the last estimates. We've intercepted 32 vessels' since 2013 carrying 800 persons.

Even with the assurance that the majority of the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island will be resettled in the USA, the boats have not started coming again. The boats are stopped, not because refugees on Nauru and Manus Island are being treated badly but because the diplomatic arrangements with Indonesia are in place to stop the people smuggling networks in Java and because the Australian border forces have the resources at hand to engage in any necessary turnbacks and takebacks. There is now no way that Labor is wanting to unpick those diplomatic and security arrangements.

The point of difference now comes down to how promptly an Australian government will take up the New Zealand offer to empty the Pacific camps. Labor will do so promptly if elected. The Coalition wants to continue playing it safe, putting on continued hold the lives of those on Nauru and Manus Island who do not make the cut for the USA. No doubt there is some political advantage for the Coalition with this approach. But is it needed to retain the security of our borders?

If the movement of refugees to the USA is not a problem when it comes to maintaining the security cordon for stopping the boats, then why not simply amend the Australian migration regulations to require that any refugee from Nauru or Manus Island who resettles in New Zealand be required to obtain a visa to travel to Australia? Michael Pezzullo, Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, told Estimates last week, 'The New Zealand offer is welcome, and it's certainly been the subject of expressions of appreciation on the part of the Australian government, but unless and until that question of on-travel can be addressed and resolved — once we're in a position to do that, it might be more possible to take up that offer.'

By week's end, Dutton was conceding that the New Zealand offer might be accepted, even without such a change to the visa laws. When pressed on the New Zealand offer, he told journalists: 'So at this point in time, maybe at some stage in the future when you are down to a small number of people, we aren't at that stage.'

For the good of the refugees who have languished for five years on Nauru and Manus Island, and for the good of the Australian body politic, it's time to put an end to this inhumane chapter in Australian history. Keep the boats stopped. Bring New Zealand into the mix now. Empty the camps. And fight your elections on matters of substance which don't impose untold harm on defenceless children. Both Messrs Shorten and Turnbull need to acknowledge that Ged Kearney is right.



Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, asylum seekers, refugees, Nauru, Manus Island



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Existing comments

Our government, and opposition, consists mainly of privileged white men whose background is as far from a refugee's existence as possible. We can hope that in the future our government consists of men and women who can really relate to being in a position of utter dependence. I'm unsure if I totally agree with Frank's penultimate sentence "And fight your elections on matters of substance which don't impose untold harm on defenceless children." It's a good and great statement but I'm not sure what "matters of substance" means.

Pam | 28 May 2018  

Thank you Frank for - once again - picking a clear path through what seems often to be impenetrable ground for the rest of us without the ability to sift and organise the facts in this way. I am especially grateful for your highlighting the exact spot where a specific 'point of difference' between the major parties may be identified. It helps to know just where to apply pressure effectively in an election run-up. Linda Burney claimed the transcript was not doctored, but that the omissions were a result of 'an honest mistake' by office staff. Given that any textual modification would so easily be found out, I rather hope there _was_ an honest mistake made. Not because the alternative betrays a flexibility of attitude towards the truth - I think we're all quite used to that - but because otherwise we are left having to admit that a politician might feel the electorate was stupid enough to swallow the 'honest mistake' line, if (when?) in reality this were a deliberate attempt at blurring what was said post-interview.

Richard Jupp | 28 May 2018  

Thank you once again for reminding us of the inhumanity of this issue. I can't for the life of me remotely imagine what these refugees are going through. I suspect that with climate change on the horizon , the refugee issue with people from the Pacific Islands will become a flood , maybe within our lifetimes. When will we do then?

Gavin | 28 May 2018  

That's an accurate article Frank and you are dead right. Both Manus and Nauru detention centres are a disgrace - as is Dutton's head prefect point scoring attitude. More worrying still are the illegals overstaying their visas with China always topping the list. By Sarah Whyte SMH 26 December 2014 "People from China, Malaysia and the United States were the highest number of visa overstayers in Australia in 2013, with the Chinese topping the list at 7690. According to an Immigration Department report, Migration Trends 2012-2013, visitors (44,800) and students (10,720) were the largest cohort of visa holders to overstay their visit. The highest number of visa overstayers in 2013 by nationality came from China (7690), Malaysia (6420), the US (5220) and the UK (3780). And from Courier Mail Jan 2018: MORE than two thirds of the 64,000 who came to Australia on legal visas and have overstayed have been living here for more than two years. Illegal boats Border protection shouldnt be the Governments sole focus despite its high profile. Illegal Chinese infiltrating our cities is a far more pervasive and insidious problem. And very little is being done about it. It doesnt fit with political posturing. We lease our ports to them, sell our resources and mines to them. We sell our farms to them. What we did to the Aborigines the Chinese will soon do to us. And perhaps it will serve us right. And since we are on the subject of statistics, the illegals on Manus and Nauru only represent 3 percent of the problem.

Frank Armstrong | 28 May 2018  

Thanks Fr Brennan; you are of course quite right to point out that both of our main parties have essentially the same policy, and in spite of Ged Kearney`s "dog-whistling" to the Labour-left and Greens. The NZ option is now the only difference and is probably inevitable. But don`t we also need to avoid getting into this ever again. The naval action is a very blunt and expensive exercise and we need to get back to the Gillard proposal for off-shore processing of refugees for admission to Australia. This eminently sensible policy option was destroyed by an unholy alliance of Abbott in opposition and the Greens, essentially just because they could; to be difficult and deliberately obstructionist; and for base politics of easy votes. Lest we forget!

Eugene | 28 May 2018  

Australians ! Stand up and be counted.protest against imprisoning refugees, when no crime has been committed...except searching for freedom! . What a disgraceful slur on our country! This goes against our democracy. I demand along with millions of other Australians,that we uphold refugees, the world over, to a dignity,and safety we ourselves would expect!A decent life in a free country. Shame on our Government!

Bernie | 28 May 2018  

Thanks Frank for your rationality and compassion as ever. I will spell out what you were politely hinting at when you speculated on a possible political reason for the Govt keeping the camps going endlessly- that it is a readymade wedge in place, ready to divide the Labor Party at any convenient time. Look how quickly Dutton stepped in to exploit the internal Labor vulnerability exposed by Jed Kearney’s maiden speech and Linda Burney’s Sky TV interview in support. I think Quaedvlieg, basically a decent man, is well out of that snake’s nest called Border Protection. What is awful is how so many Australians have gotten used to a horrible situation of permanent detention for people, including many children, who have done nothing wrong. It stretches on endlessly, with only the forlorn hope for some few of possible eventual US resettlement. These kids are spending their whole childhood in detention. The best years of these young men and womens’ lives are being wasted in detention. We have become so brutalised a country that we as a whole nation shrug this evil deed off. The cartoon expressed it perfectly. I wish I had hope but I cannot see it. At least we have stopped leaving people to drown at sea - that was a line most of us wanted to step back from, and Abbott and Morrison and Molan realised this. I actually despise Turnbull and Shorten for not resolving this today together, as a legacy issue from past policy errors. It would be so easy for them together to wordsmith a safe non-precedental solution for these 1600 victims , if the will and compassion were there in both men. Sadly, it is not.

Tony Kevin | 28 May 2018  

Greg Barnes's article in today's Hobart Mercury precisely sums up the scandalous mess that Australia has got itself into.

Paddy Byers | 28 May 2018  

Thank you Frank for what you have written. Ged Kearney’s maiden speech in parliament offered a small glimmer of hope, Linda Burney intervention on Sky similarly. Then, at the Victorian Labor conference this week an urgency motion calling for an end to offshore immigration detention and the transfer of all remaining asylum seekers to the Australian mainland within 90 days was prevented by a procedural move by the CFMEU. Its motive is blatant protection of Bill Shorten’s position on refugees and indicates that any major change to the party’s platform at the national conference is truly dubious. Hope dashed. The government position is, at every opportunity, to wedge Labor by using the people on Manus Island and Nauru as a football in this game of national shame. Only it’s not a game. People who deserve our compassion should not be treated as if they are less than human as the Turnbull government is so doing. Labor is equally shameful. Its cowardice in allowing Unions, or any entity within its influence, to stifle debate on this issue, deserves condemnation. Personally, I am appalled at Turnbull/Dutton sadistic policy and I am just as disgusted by Labor’s scarcity of policy.

Jeff Kevin | 28 May 2018  

First prize to Dutton for the blame game, but he still did not answer the question. But then which politician does? The possibility of a NZ solution gives me hope, but why so long getting round to it-and if Dutton now thinks the NZ solution is ok even without requiring a visa why the change of mind? Funny how the image of Pontius Pilate comes to mind in this context of responsibility. Quid est veritas ? as he supposedly said.

Henri | 28 May 2018  

Thank you Frank for such a wonderful write-up. It is exactly how I think and I feel so embarrassed about this whole issue. I teach English to Refugees and Asylum Seekers every Friday and this whole comes to mind to haunt me. I just hope that there will be some change soon, very soon.

Breda O'Reilly | 28 May 2018  

I totally agree. It is a big blot on the Australian government. Another one to match the treatment of native Australians.

Noeline Champion | 29 May 2018  

Another disgraceful mess initiated by the Labor Party and left to those who replaced it in government to clean up the mess - not forgetting that perhaps the worst and most disingenuous Prime Minister this country has ever had, one J W Howard, is not blameless in the origins of our country's response to asylum seekers.

john frawley | 29 May 2018  

Thanks Frank! Duton is fear-mongering and playing politiics with the lives of desperate asylum seekers. I can't wait for a change of Government. There are enough decent people in the ALP to solve this problem quickly. Seven innocent men have died on Manus Island already and there will be more if this Government remains in power for much longer! The boats have stopped and will stay stopped, so that's a red herring being used by Dutton and his cohorts!

Grant Allen | 29 May 2018  

Flogging these people off to New Zealand or any other country is by law human trafficking and this is the 2 nd time these people will have been trafficked for racist votes. Stopping boats is not actually legal or moral and I do wish you would stop claiming we have to commit multiple genocides to save the lives of 1500 others. How dare you continue to tell 65 million other refugees that their lives have no consequence

Marilyn | 31 May 2018  

Welcome back after a long holiday, Marilyn!

john frawley | 31 May 2018  

Thanks Frank for continuing to speak out when so many have (understandably) grown weary of the fight. So much of all this discussion centers around numbers and I wonder if anyone has done the exercise of looking at the cost of incarcerating all refugees on Manus and Nauru since they were opened and averaged it out per per person? (And extensively published the results.) If we are more motivated by our hip pocket than human rights, then costs alone should turn the tide of public opinion.

Tricia | 31 May 2018  

You succinctly echo the thoughts, Frank, of millions of decent Australians.

Anne Fitzpatrick | 31 May 2018  

Succinctly argued, Frank! God Love You!

Michael Furtado | 01 June 2018  

Well said, Frank. What your political leaders are doing in the name of many decent Australians is quite sickening. Jim Hacker's antics for keeping himself in power we could laugh at because it was a send-up on cowardice. Can your guys not see the connections? For the worst of motives (pandering to a residue of racism in sections of the public) they inflict cruelties for which they would be punished if done in Australia. They discredit themselves in the eyes of the world - and unfortunately it rubs off on to the people they represent. It is that public that needs to stand up against what is happening. Peter Cullinane, Ashhurst, New Zealand

peter cullinane | 01 June 2018  

The figures given by the department at the Estimates hearing on 21 May highlight the political cynicism and timidity in our Parliament about this issue at the moment.

The US has agreed to take 1250 of the proven refugees on Nauru and Manus Island.

The US has already taken 249 of the promised 1250. Here is the breakdown of those numbers: ‘Afghanistan—48 from Nauru and 39 from PNG. Bangladesh—five from Nauru and two from PNG. Cameroon—zero. India—six from Nauru and zero from PNG. Indonesia—one from Nauru. Iran—14 from Nauru and one from PNG. Lebanon—zero. Myanmar—four from Nauru and two from PNG. Pakistan—76 from Nauru and 16 from PNG. Somalia—seven from Nauru and two from PNG. Sri Lanka—28 from Nauru and zero from PNG. Stateless—73 from Nauru and 45 from PNG. Sudanese—zero from Nauru but three from PNG.’

As I wrote in the article, once the US takes another 1001 proven refugees, ‘This will leave another 655 people to be resettled in third countries or to be returned to their home country. So the point of difference is merely over what is to become of these 655 people.’

How many of those 655 will be proven refugees awaiting third country resettlement and how many will be persons found not to be refugees who then have no option but to return home? We don’t yet know. But I predict that very few of those remaining 655 will be proven refugees. We do know that 121 of them have already be rejected by the US, and 70 of those are from Iran. Here is the breakdown of the numbers rejected:

‘Afghanistan: Nauru 5; PNG 0. Bangladesh: Nauru 1; PNG 0. Cameroon: Nauru 1; PNG 0. India: Nauru and PNG 0. Indonesia: Nauru and PNG 0. Iran: Nauru 70; PNG 0. Iraq: Nauru 6; PNG 0. Lebanon: Nauru 2; PNG 0. Myanmar: Nauru 1; PNG 0. Pakistan: Nauru 8; PNG 0. Somalia: Nauru 15; PNG 0. Sri Lanka: Nauru 4; PNG 0. Stateless: Nauru 6; PNG 0. Sudan: Nauru 2; PNG 0.’

There will be some proven refugees rejected by the US. But presumably most of those rejected by the US, particularly the single males from Iran, will not be classifiable as refugees. Iran will not take their nationals back until they go ‘voluntarily’. Only 1 Iranian from Manus Island has been resettled in the US. While 70 Iranians on Nauru have been rejected, there have not yet been any formal rejections of Iranians on Manus Island. This indicates that the Iranian caseload of single men on Manus Island is one of the last groups to be screened by the US. The department has informed the Senate: ‘The Iranians are still receiving positives, but these outcomes also aren't disproportionate to the IMA case load onshore in terms of refusal rates. We see higher refusal rates amongst that cohort onshore.’

On 8 May 2018, Ben Doherty writing in The Guardian said, ‘On Manus Island, the refugee and journalist Behrouz Boochani said all Iranians and Somalis were fearful they would be rejected. “There is huge worry in Nauru & Manus about US deal,” he wrote. “Many Iranian & Somali refugees in Nauru given rejection notices from US. It means US considers the countries banned. Its time for that the Home Affairs minister takes responsibility & makes his plan clear.”’

Once the Iranian case load of non-refugees is deducted from the remaining 655, there will be only a handful of proven refugees awaiting resettlement. Both sides of politics should commit to clearing the caseload by the time the US has received its full quota of 1250. Why not bring NZ into the mix NOW? That’s the question for our politicians NOW. There will still remain the question as to how the rejected Iranians without a proven refugee claim can be returned home voluntarily. But that question will be more readily answered once the caseload of proven refugees (including children) is resettled.

Frank Brennan SJ | 01 June 2018  

When the Manus Island RPC was closing last October, the Parliamentary Library reported: 'According to a response to a question asked at a Senate Estimates hearing in February 2017, between 19 July 2013 and 27 February 2017 a total of 1,523 people were transferred to the Manus Island RPC. The three largest citizenship groups were Iran (675 people), Afghanistan (138 people) and Iraq (122 people). Refugee status determination for asylum seekers transferred to Manus Island is the responsibility of the PNG Government. As at 30 September 2017, 1025 initial refugee status assessment notifications had been made by PNG officials, but many of these cases had yet to be finally determined by the PNG Minister for Foreign Affairs and Citizenship. Following final determination, 730 people in the Manus Island processing centre had been found to be refugees, while 253 had been found not to be refugees.'

Frank Brennan SJ | 01 June 2018  

There are about 550 Iranians waiting in PNG.

Frank Brennan SJ | 01 June 2018  

A good discussion on ABC Matter of Fact with Stan Grant and Professor Andreas Schloenhardt in relation to Australian asylum policy. I insisted on the need to separate out the distinct issues of turnbacks and the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers being kept on Nauru and Manus Island with their lives on hold for more than five years. In relation to turnbacks we definitely need more information from parliament, given that Angus Houston’s expert panel recommended in 2012: ‘The panel notes that the conditions necessary for effective, lawful and safe turnback of irregular vessels carrying asylum seekers to australia are not currently met, but that this situation could change in the future, in particular if appropriate regional and bilateral arrangements are in place.’ So we need to deal with the residual caseloads on Nauru and Manus Island AND satisfy ourselves that appropriate regional and bilateral arrangements are in place. Listen at https://soundcloud.com/frank-brennan-6/abc-matter-of-fact-on-australian-asylum-policy

Frank Brennan SJ | 06 November 2018  

In her Valedictory last night, Labor Senator Jacinta Collins said: ‘Australians do not want to see refugees languishing forever. While we all endorse the policy objective of deterrence, it is abhorrent to use people's lives to achieve such a goal. I regret that officials did not alert Labor when we were in government that boat interceptions or turnbacks could safely occur. Much of what followed might not have subsequently occurred.’

Frank Brennan SJ | 15 February 2019  

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