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Labor's cruel joke on asylum seeker women


Sott Morrison, smiling, in front of a lakeThe recent transfer of pregnant women from the Papua New Guinea detention centre to Australia was a good decision by the Gillard Government. The choice to follow medical advice not to transfer children under the age of seven to the facility is also good policy. But who could credit a Labor Government that believes detaining women and children (of any age) in remote locations, without justifiable reason, is a good idea in the first place?

The detention of any person in Nauru or PNG is bad policy. Care must be taken not to obscure the needs of vulnerable men when focusing on women and children. But the incarceration of women and children in particular sits uncomfortably with many Australians. The Government would be wise to suspend future transfers.

The capacity of the offshore asylum seeker camps is already surpassed by large numbers of ongoing arrivals, which render meaningless the 'deterrent' excuse. If the Government continues to make an example of women and children, the chorus of dissent will continue to grow. When Labor returned to power in 2007 it was on a promise to end the cruelties of the previous Coalition government, not to embrace or entrench them.

While Labor regularly finds itself wedged on asylum policy, the Coalition is gifted with an easier ride and allowed to indulge in higher levels of hypocrisy. Detaining asylum seekers in Nauru and PNG is Coalition policy — they invented it, they claimed it, Tony Abbott advocated for its return. But as the policy fails to produce desired outcomes, shadow immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison (pictured) is shifting blame to the Government.

Ray Hadley and other commentators supportive of the Coalition never call Morrison out on his 'inconsistencies'. Hadley, like Abbott, deliberately refers to asylum seekers as 'illegal' as he rails relentlessly against Gillard, and Morrison is one of his favourite guests. The rest of the media should stop letting Morrison off the hook.

When news broke of the transfers of pregnant women from Manus, Morrison quickly linked the move with the Government's decision not to transfer young children to Manus (based on medical advice covering a range of issues, including immunisations).

This was, he cried, 'another example of how the Government doesn't think these issues through' — meaning: women in Manus will get pregnant and give birth to children under the age of seven. But evidence of past Coalition practice, under its hastily cobbled together Pacific Solution policy, gives no reason for Morrison to gloat.

Morrison claims he doesn't oppose the transfer of pregnant women to Australia and says 'you always have to have the proper care provided to people who are in that situation'. But under Coalition policy, newborn babies, toddlers and pregnant women were all indefinitely detained in PNG and Nauru, and women were not transferred to Australia to give birth to their babies.

Medical reports from the Coalition's time in power note the case of a 17-month-old in Manus with congenital hip dislocation, yet nowhere are concerns raised about the toddler's immunisation or about other very young children. The case of an eight-year-old with Malaria, complicated by severe urinary tract infection, was reported during the same month that two depressed pregnant women told staff they wanted to abort their pregnancies.

Both major parties have taken risks with the health of detainees transferred to Manus. Malaria, for example, is a serious problem in the region and numerous detainees (including young children) and staff were infected during the Coalition's time in power.

No preventative medication can provide complete protection, and the Royal Perth Hospital notes that malaria is a significant cause of stillbirths, infant mortality and low birth weight, and 'pregnant women are twice as attractive to malaria-carrying mosquitoes as non-pregnant women'. The World Health Organisation cautions, 'pregnant women should be advised to avoid travelling to areas where malaria transmission occurs'.

Morrison also tells us that he is concerned about inadequate separation (a wire fence and green shade cloth) between families and single men in the Manus facility. But how can we take him seriously when the Coalition previously detained men, women and children within mixed gender offshore compounds — without even a shade cloth — and women reported being too frightened to go to the toilet in a camp full of male strangers?

If Labor continues to support an inhumane and flawed policy, which is not slowing boat arrivals and does nothing to address the problems of displaced refugees in the region, the effects of the political wedge will always be Labor's to own. But it was the collusion of both major parties that gave us the Pacific Solution in 2001 and both are responsible for the decision to reintroduce the policy in 2012, against the advice of government agencies.

Both Labor and the Coalition should now be feeling the full force of the media's scrutiny, and both should be condemned for toying with the lives of vulnerable human beings. 

Susan Metcalfe headshotSusan Metcalfe is the author of The Pacific Solution (Australian Scholarly).


Topic tags: Susan Metcalfe, Pacific Solution, Nauru, Manus Island, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Precisely, when Gillard giving her apology the other day she had 1000 refugee children jailed without hope and 600 women, some like Ranjini locked up without hope of release even though she is a refugee under our laws. Why they persist in making this policy break all the laws in the world and wipe out the human rights of some for the sake of appealing to racists beats me.

Marilyn | 25 March 2013  

J M Coetzee's "Foe" is an abstruse reworking of Daniel DeFoe's classic novel "Robinson Crusoe". In Coetzee's story there are three main characters, one of which is Friday, a tongue-less, story-less, silent slave. These are the closing lines of "Foe": "His mouth opens. From inside him comes a slow stream, without breath, without interruption. It flows up through his body and out upon me; it passes through the cabin, through the wreck; washing the cliffs and shores of the island; it runs northward and southward to the ends of the earth. Soft and cold, dark and unending, it beats against my eyelids, against the skin of my face."

Pam | 26 March 2013  

When it comes to refugees + Australian politicians there is only one word to sum the situation up, liars. Scott Morison has a funny way of 'being a Christian' and Gillard has a particularly nasty way of operating as a PM, preferring to bow to the Westie mindset that propels her government as it seeks to garner votes from the clueless, the angry, the ill-educated, the resentful demdning that refugees go back to where they didn't come from. Abbott, a truly remarkable man capable of absolutely no hint awareness in relation to his double standards thrives on the situation too. That leaves the public, un-engaged, resentful of all politicians and keen to rid themselves of any they can, hence the election crash Gillard is working towards. Sadly, after the cleansing of ALP ranks, there will be no satisfaction as Abbott continues the exact same policies and commentary. Politics is broken, and none of us really cares too much anymore.

Janice Wallace | 26 March 2013  

Susan Metcalfe's insights on the detention of lawful asylum seekers is an important contribution to this modern day political crime against humanity. It shows the baseness of many politicians, just as their predecessors showed when slavery was the issue.

Carmel Sheehan | 26 March 2013  

(Marilyn25 Mar 2013) "Why they persist in making this policy break all the laws in the world and wipe out the human rights of some for the sake of appealing to racists beats me." The reason, of course, is that the Opposition's appeal to the bias and self-interest of non-compassionate voters threatens - and looks like succeeding - in ending Labors term of government.

Robert Liddy | 26 March 2013  

Refugee advocates refuse to acknowledge that their policies are not popular & therefore they make a further mistake in never developing a long term strategy to change that unpopularity. So nothing will ever change and they should take some responsibility for that.

peter gavin | 26 March 2013  

Well and truly said, Ms Metcalfe. I simply don't understand why all churches, temples and mosques in Australia do not rail vociferously and continually against the major parties' policies, and exhort their parishioners to follow the teachings of their respective prophets in relation to refugees. I know of one person whose original antipathy towards asylum seekers was turned around when her parish "adopted" a number of them. God help the poor wretches because not enough of us appear willing to do so.

Patricia R | 26 March 2013  

Peter Gavin, if you can only blame those who support the victims of war and persecution because we have racist pollies who don't listen I suggest you are the one bereft of ideas. The refugee convention has 34 legally binding articles that cover everything from our responsibilities to the rights of asylum seekers in our territory. All we ask is a government that will abide by them instead of again claiming that trading a few to Malaysia will stop people dying - they still have to get here first.

Marilyn | 26 March 2013  

Why Eureka Street attracts so many anti John Howard, anti Tony Abbott and anti Conservative parties? Millions of law abiding and Christian citizens of Australia know that under the previous Coalition government the boats stopped coming and many lives were saved. Many suffering genuine refugees from Africa and Asia were able to come to Australia after waiting many years for a generous country to accept them. The vast majority of voters can't wait for September the 14th to cast their votes for a return to sanity in Australia

Ron Cini | 26 March 2013  

Ron Cini implies that the Howard government policies stopped the boats. Yes, the boats did stop during the last Coalition government, but now that the same policies are back in force under the Gillard government, the boats keep coming. Clearly, government policy in Australia has less effect on boat arrivals than the push factors which cause people to flee their countries and/or to take risky boat journeys from Indonesia to Australia.

Ian Fraser | 27 March 2013  

Marilyn, you miss my point entirely & calling people racist is extreme. I want a long term strategy to change public opinion and calling people who differ as racist is counter productive and the reason why pro refugee activists hold a minority view because these outbursts have turned the majority against. In fact that is the 'cruel joke on asylum seekers'.

peter gavin | 27 March 2013  

Peter, your argument wins the Orwell award for this decade. So those of us who think we should uphold the law and not torture people are to blame because we break the law and torture people. I believe they said the same about us when we protested against Vietnam.

Marilyn | 27 March 2013  

Marilyn again you miss the point. There was a long term strategy to change public opinion on the Vietnam War. Remember 100,000 plus peaceful people in marches in Melbourne 3 times! That took real organisation & work, and we did not call opponents racists!

peter gavin | 27 March 2013  

Yes did call the opposition racists, and we called them baby killers and all manner of other things during the anti-Vietnam war protests. I would suggest Peter Gavin was not there. Today the government are trumpetting letting the families out of prison to live in the community under bridges to save money while wasting millions on Nauru. They have zero sense and it is all led by Gillard.

Marilyn | 28 March 2013  

PEOPLE we must put ourselves in THEIR situation

fedup | 19 July 2013  

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