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Indecent asylum policy damages us all

  • 21 September 2016


In the last week Malcolm Turnbull has lauded, as the world's best refugee policy and a shining light to the rest of the world, a system that has resettled no refugees over three years.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has stated that asylum seekers will continue to be processed in Nauru for decades. He has also described the Australian policy, of which detention on Nauru is part, as compassionate and effective.

These comments follow recent reports by NGOs Save the Children and UNICEF, as well as the Australian Human Rights Commission, on offshore detention. Both urge an end to it. Although the primary concern of these organisations is to defend and safeguard the human dignity of the people subject to detention, their reports situate Australian asylum policy in a broader context.

As well as instantiating the damage it causes to the physical and mental health of its victims, they also consider the international movement of peoples caused by war, terror and famine, the impact that this global movement has on the nations in the Asia Pacific region, and the financial and reputational costs to Australia of the present policy.

Both outline elements of a better policy in which the heavy costs would be lessened and people who seek protection be treated with respect.

The Human Rights Commission had earlier published The Forgotten Children report, a scathing and forensic account of the damage done by the circumstances and conditions of life for children in detention on Nauru and in Australia.

Its recent report steps back from the personal and anecdotal detail provided in the earlier document. It situates the Australian policy in its regional context, points out its costs and its contradictions, and urges that it be replaced by a policy that provides protection through regional cooperation for people fleeing persecution.

The Save the Children — UNICEF report focuses particularly on the plight of children trapped by the present policy and details the damage done both to children and adults by its workings. It estimates the direct costs of detention and points out the indirect costs in lost opportunity and in future mental illness, not to mention the human suffering of those detained and the damage done to Australia's reputation.


"As the rhetoric of Turnbull and Dutton shows, politicians can accept wasteful expenditure and strong criticism of their pet enterprises. These things will not convince them that a policy is indecent. "


The emphasis on the monetary and reputational costs of the Australian