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PNG move proves Australia is not special


Slogan in stylised text reads 'If you come here by boat you won't be settled in Australia'I've just spent the week in Myanmar, oblivious of rapid developments for asylum seekers in Australia. On Saturday morning, I landed back into Sydney to see full page advertisements simply stating, 'If you come by boat without a visa you won't be settled in Australia'. This wasn't John Howard; this is Kevin Rudd.

During my week in Yangon I had the good fortune to catch up with Fr Bambang Sipayung SJ, the regional director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) for Asia Pacific as well as previous JRS directors for India and Sri Lanka. Talking to them, I was aware yet again that we Australians see ourselves as special. It's only the citizens of an island nation continent who can become so obsessed about the desirability of hermetically sealed borders.

So what to make of it all?

Since the Houston Panel reported almost a year ago, it has been very clear that all major political parties in Australia are of the unshakeable view that there is a world of difference between an asylum seeker in direct flight from persecution seeking a transparent determination of their refugee claim which if successful will result in the grant of temporary protection, and an asylum seeker prepared to risk life and fortune to engage a people smuggler to obtain not just temporary protection but permanent resettlement in first world Australia.

With the rapid increase in the number of boat people arriving from Indonesia this past two years and the corresponding increase in deaths at sea, I have been one refugee advocate prepared to concede this distinction, though claiming that the line is often difficult to draw. 

The line could be drawn more compellingly if there was a basic level of processing and protection in Indonesia, Malaysia and throughout the region which could be endorsed by the UNHCR. That is a work which would require a lot of painstaking high level diplomacy. And it can't be done before the 2013 Australian election. I respect those refugee advocates who think such a regional agreement would never be possible. But I still think it's worth a try.

All decent Australians remain open to providing protection to fair dinkum asylum seekers in direct flight from persecution to our shores. The majority of voters think that the people smugglers and some of their clients are having a lend of us. The mantra of processing and permanently resettling all asylum seekers will not have any appeal to any major political party in Australia for a very long time to come.

Some refugee advocates in the past gave cautious approval to the Gillard Government's Malaysia Solution. That arrangement was based on the premise that it would stop the boats because no one would risk life and fortune to be among the first 800 to arrive in Australia only to be moved to Malaysia to join the other 100,000 people of concern to UNHCR. The Malaysia deal would not have resulted in any significant improvement to the upstream conditions for asylum seekers in Indonesia. It was simply a means of trying to stem the boat flow.

Malaysia never made sense to me because no one could say what would be done with unaccompanied minors and other particularly vulnerable individuals. If kids without parents were included in the 800, the arrangement would be unprincipled; if not, it would be unworkable because the next lot of boats would have been full of kids.

In the short term, no government will stop the boats unless there is a clear message sent to people smugglers and people waiting in Indonesia to board boats. But that message must propose a solution which is both workable and basically fair, maintaining the letter and spirit of the Convention and Australian law.

When the High Court struck down the Malaysia Solution, the major political parties were united in wanting to cut the Court out of the action and in wanting to assure the public that the Parliament would maintain adequate scrutiny of the Executive. The law put in place required any proposal to be placed before both Houses of Parliament allowing our elected representatives to disallow the proposal.

When our politicians approved Manus Island as a staging post for processing a few hundred asylum seekers most of whom would be resettled in Australia, they had no idea that they would be voting to approve a plan for permanent removal of asylum seekers from Australia. This may in part explain Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's statement on Friday, 'There will be those both in PNG and Australia who will seek to attack this arrangement through the courts, which is why we have been as careful as we can in constructing an arrangement which is mindful of the earlier deliberations of the courts.' In principle, the matter should be brought back to Parliament. Politically this would also make sense, locking in all major political parties.

UNHCR and Paris Aristotle, the refugee advocate who served on the Houston Panel, have been very critical of the facilities at Manus Island. The new minister Tony Burke rightly boasted as one of his first acts that he was removing all kids from Manus Island. Now under the mantle of the Australian Parliament's approval of Manus Island, our government is planning to send there anyone and everyone who arrives by boat. It is imperative that kids without parents and other vulnerable individuals not be sent to PNG until UNHCR and advocates like Paris Aristotle can give the arrangements the tick.

When the Gillard Government resurrected Manus Island and Nauru, we all knew that this would not stop the boats. Andrew Metcalfe the previous head of the immigration department had told us so. This bold PNG move might stop the boats in the short term. Let's hope it does. But if it does, we need after the election to recommit ourselves as a nation to providing better regional upstream processing and protection for those asylum seekers stranded in Indonesia and Malaysia. If it doesn't work, we will be complicit in visiting further social problems on PNG and the Torres Strait where in the past we have permitted PNG residents to come and go, fishing and socialising. 

The Torres Strait will now have to become the most policed boundary in Australian history. So much for the delights of an island home. Just as we have undermined Australian values by placing asylum seekers in the community without work rights and without adequate welfare, so too we will now risk undermining the values of Torres Strait Islanders who have long extended a welcome to their PNG neighbours.

In the long term, we, a first world country with a commitment to the Refugees Convention, will not stop the boats until we work cooperatively with our neighbours seeking better upstream processes and protection for asylum seekers in our region and negotiating an equitable distribution of resettlement places. Let's hope the boats do stop before the election. And let's hope that after the election whoever is in government can call a truce on the race to the bottom, committing to the hard diplomatic work needed for a regional solution to a regional problem.

With every step like the PNG Solution, we Australians show the rest of the region that we are only special because we think we are; and we're not. Just judge us by our actions. When in a tight spot, we use our neighbours.

Frank Brennan headshotFr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at Australian Catholic University, and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, PNG, asylum seekers, Kevin Rudd, Bob Carr, Malaysia Solution



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Existing comments

What most media and observers have failed to see in the concerns about this proposal is the very real threat to Refugees in Papua New Guinea from Non-Christian religions

The PNG Post-Courier published a story on July 15 in which it reported that the Parliament of Papua New Guinea has passed a motion to carry out a nationwide consultation on the question of religious freedom and whether to ban faiths that are not Christian.

This is an alarming and disturbing prospect in a country preparing to accept Refugees from divers religious backgrounds as permanent residents.

To their credit the Catholic Bishops Conference of Papua New Guinea have released a statement calling the proposed ban"absurd". The Bishops go on to say:

The simple discussion of banning other faiths from any town in the twenty-first century contradicts decades a human rights progress and civil liberties. It infringes in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. Moreover it discriminates among citizens on a ground that should never be reason for discrimination: personal faith.

Tony Robertson | 20 July 2013  

It is a tactic, the fourth option, to out flank Abbott. To beat the Nazis we had to be tougher and more ruthless, than them. It took generations for us to return from that dark place. Out of that darkness of a shattered world our Jesse Street and Doc Evatt, helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and we Australians signed up to take a quota of refugees (now 27,000) over and above those who, ALSO turn up on our borders. We shelter those who come by air on false documents. But come by sea unable to obtain documents and you will play into Menzies and Howard's fearmongering of YELLOW hordes coming from the north. Nobody these days feels it important to honour the word of our forebears. John Howard took us down this road to avoid the cost of lawyers standing up for and running appeals for asylum seekers. We are losing money hand over fist to an international corporation, (Serco) to keep desperate people in Gulags, instead of providing the shelter we would want for our loved ones if ever we have to flee this place. Even though I know, after seeing the news hit the headlines around the world, this is probably the strongest message we could send to these wretched people to stay in a camp till their turn comes. I am as a 78 Australian man deeply ashamed that we have come to this low level, below even Tony Abbott. The LNP are now in a mass funk. At least that makes me smile.

John Ward | 20 July 2013  

It is a tactic, to out flank Abbott. To beat the Nazis we had to be tougher and more ruthless, than them. It took generations for us to return from that dark place. Jesse Street and Doc Evatt, helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and we Australians, signed up to take a quota of refugees (now 27,000) over and above those who, ALSO turn up on our borders. John Howard took us down this road to avoid the cost of lawyers standing up for and running appeals for asylum seekers. We are losing money hand over fist to an international corporation, (Serco) to keep desperate people in Gulags, instead of providing the shelter we would want for our loved ones if ever we have to flee this place. Even though I know, after seeing the news hit the headlines around the world, this is probably the strongest message we could send to these wretched people to stay in a camp till their turn comes. I am as a 78 Australian man deeply ashamed that we have come to this low level, below even Tony Abbott. The LNP are now in a mass funk. At least that makes me smile.

John Ward | 20 July 2013  

Australia currently accepts Png citizens who seek asylum here on refugee convention grounds. Many are unable to have basic human rights protected by the PNG govt. How can we be transporting people seeking protect to PNG which is unable/ unwilling to protect its own people. NB asylum seekers from PNG are not people from West Papua

Pamela | 21 July 2013  

Presenting the Instrument of Designation to Parliament on 9 October 2012, Minister Bowen said: “By presenting the designation and accompanying documents, in accordance with the legislation, I provide the parliament with the opportunity to be satisfied that what is in place, and will be put in place, is appropriate.” He told Parliament : “Today's designation of Papua New Guinea is a further step in the government's task of implementing the (Houston) panel's recommendations.” The accompanying documents included the MOU with PNG which was very specific in dealing only with an Assessment Centre at Manus Island. It stated: “Papua New Guinea will establish an Assessment Centre in Manus Province for the purposes of this MOU. The Government of Australia will guarantee that all persons entering Papua New Guinea under this MOU will have left within as short a time as is reasonably necessary for the implementation of this MOU.” Members of Parliament who decided not to disallow the instrument of designation would now be surprised to know that they were agreeing to the establishment of this week’s PNG Solution. The PNG Solution was no part whatever of the Houston Panel recommendations. Thus my recommendation that Parliament be reconvened to render watertight the new arrangements.

Frank Brennan SJ | 21 July 2013  

An incredibly sane, balanced and compassionate article, Frank. This is the sort of contribution we need to the ongoing national debate on this subject.

Edward F | 21 July 2013  

Thank you again Fr Brennan. Australia should now be willing to spend a lot of money to improve conditions in/develop PNG for the good of both nationals and refugees. Also, money to help clear the UNHCR backlog of 8000 in Indonesia is desperately needed. If asylum seekers were given real hope of resettlement (i.e. they know they're in the 27000 p.a. Intake), maybe they'd be less likely to risk their and their children's lives?

Patricia r | 21 July 2013  

the hypocrisy of the labor Government on this matters confirms why LABOR doesnt spell LABOUR. They dont care about ''u''.

PHIL | 21 July 2013  

Thank You Fr Brennan for your intelligent and obvious compassionate article. Hearing bout this new 'solution' the PM announced shocked me to my core. Especially the language he used. It makes me sad to call myself Australian, knowing that this is what we have become. Once we were a nation built by refugees and immigrants, and although we are yet to pay full and proper respect to the indigenous people's of this place, we must never forget the strength and character that built from many parts. Finally, "When in a tight spot, we use our neighbours" this a sentiment that is often forgotten by our 'leaders' when the shoe is on the other foot. Our neighbours have often come to our aid and we must stand ready and proud to return the favour. Peace to All.

Michael Meehan | 21 July 2013  

I hope the tough but fair minded Kevin Rudd I used to work for reads your piece and does something substantive about upstream refugee policy. If he doesn't how far further do we have to fall in this race to the bottom?

Robert Smith | 21 July 2013  

Has Mr Rudd taken advice from experts in sociology regarding his idea, which we will pay for, of resettling people, largely from the middle east, of differing language, culture, religion and development, into Papua New Guinea? I expect not. PNG, from what is reported in Australia, still descends to often brutal wars between different tribes. We read of a misogyny in which young girls and women are assaulted, tortured and recently, of a woman deliberately burnt to death. It is not a fantasy to suggest a future of civil discord between PNG inhabitants and refugees moving out from their detention centres. PNG is working to join the more developed world. How could Rudd have made this rushed decision, one which will tear the fragile net of PNG development into a more united and moral society? The result will be civil unrest greater than PNG has known before.

Caroline Storm | 21 July 2013  

At last. Please teach me what is limiting our ability to process visa applications ten times as fast and four times as generously in the countries of origin; surely the situation must be more complex than I know. But thankyou so much for lifting our eyes past the boats themselves to where a solution must surely be found upstream.

Anna Summerfield | 21 July 2013  

I'm an Australian in Kabul. The Australian government pays for TV advertisements here aimed at discouraging asylum seekers. The amusing/sad thing is that the vast majority of people don't even know where Australia is (i.e. "not special). Most have no hope of paying a smuggler to take them there or anywhere else. The major impact, therefore, of the ads is to make people think that Australia must be a very harsh and unwelcoming. Many young people here can see no future for Afghanistan. Remember, if they are part of the 75% of the population under the age of 35, they have never experienced peace. Perhaps a little more, well-targeted development dollars could make more difference to some potential asylum seekers than the millions spent on building higher and higher walls around Australia's borders. As an example: Australians love cricket. Cricket has become the most popular sport here - it has hundreds of thousands of players and millions of supporters. It is uniting Afghanistan and bringing people together in a way that has not been seen before. How about trying some "cricket diplomacy": offering hope to young people and stop making Australia look bad.

Anthony | 21 July 2013  

Whatever it takes, as a former politician once put it. If Abbott is elected PM his government will be able to take any hard line they wish for nothing could possibly out do this inhumane policy of the Rudd government.

Brian Goodall | 21 July 2013  

Many thanks Fr Frank for this article re Asylum Seekers/Refugees... You have given me plenty of "food for thought"... I have taken the liberty of forwarding your article to Kevin Rudd and also to GetUp!... Many thanks Rita

Rita Cusack | 21 July 2013  

Tourism Australia expects to upload as many as 15,000 photos to a specially designed interactive website that will build up a ’mosaic’ of Australia as told through the eyes of Australians.http://www.toonpool.com/cartoons/Time_34549#img9

Annoying Orange | 21 July 2013  

is it naive to wish and pray that asylum seekers who are escaping persecution and seeking safety and security, leaving their families, friends and country as a last desperate resort, had not become a political football?

Anne Slingo | 21 July 2013  

Some us of involved in the multicultural area have put credible alternatives to both major parties over the years - such as the use of refugee organisations like the Jesuit Refugee Service to undertake the recruitment of asylum seekers at point of departure - but none of them will listen.

They prefer to allow the use of people smugglers and camps on Manus Island.

nick agocs | 21 July 2013  

So we have finally lost all hope of a morally balanced, legally compliant and ethically practical approach to our bounden duty to care for the widows, orphans and strangers at the gate. And I had laboured under the misapprehension that Kevin Rudd might help Tony Abbott, his fellow-traveller in Christ, to bring a Christian ethical judgement, always in favour of the poor and dispossessed, to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers seeking refuge and our protection - wrong again!

Michael Nelson | 21 July 2013  

How far to travel to the final solution? Shame!

Brendan McCarthy | 21 July 2013  

You are still peddling the lie of the secondary movement. Secondary movement is only real if people have real protection and decide it is not good enough. Sort of like those under the resettlement program.

People are allowed to pay for transport, it is nothing to do with smuggling anyone because they are allowed to come here so what is it we are whinging incessantly about?

Marilyn | 22 July 2013  

They literally dismissed the report with three sentences:
The evidence that this approach will work is not yet supported by any
downward trend in boat arrivals. While the committee is sympathetic to the view
that this is still a ‘work in progress’, it is not the committee’s role to assess on a
hypothetical basis whether implementation of the Expert Panel’s recommendations
in their entirety at some point in the future would satisfactorily meet Australia’s
human rights obligations. On the basis of the evidence before it, the committee
considers that the measures as currently implemented carry a significant risk of
being incompatible with a range of human rights. To the extent that some of those
rights may be limited, the committee considers that the reasonableness and
proportionality of those limitations have not been clearly demonstrated"
Australia did not sign up to accept refugees as migrants, such a thing does not even exist in law or any treaty anywhere.

Frank you are in danger of becoming another whinger.

Marilyn | 22 July 2013  

and for god's sake, resettlement is not protection, it is resettlement from another country where they already have protection.

You are making me cross because you are not making the difference clear.

Marilyn | 22 July 2013  

fundamental logic fail>>>the parties want to treat all asylum seekers the same. All applications to be processed offshore.

johnnybridge2 | 22 July 2013  

James Hathaway on Radio National Breakfast this morning called the Rudd solution as "the most bizarre overreaction I have seen in over 30years working on refugee law." http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2013/07/bst_20130722_0735.mp3

Damien | 22 July 2013  

Like you Fr Frank, I was surprised to see Rudd's new 'policy' which made Howard and Abbott look like pinko wimps. The good thing about it is that this policy is so disgraceful that the true Australians will be appalled by it, and this might finally crystallise the public debate in favour of genuine humane treatment of refugees. I cannot agree with you that "Australia is not special". Rather, Rudd has shown a level of hypocrisy and lust for power that is the most inhuman, un-Christian and un-Australian performance of any politician in my memory (he has usurped that position from Howard in spades) and it is this that to me is 'far from special'. I have confidence that the Australian people will not buy this blatant Bonapartean delusion at the cost of decency. It is simply too obscene to countenance.

John Frawley | 22 July 2013  

No Christian can support modern slavery, namely people smuggling. Welll done Kevin Rudd!

Beat Odermatt | 22 July 2013  

Beat, it is not smuggling, nor slavery, it is people seeking asylum and that is their legal right. However, us trading refugees off to foreign countries is criminal trafficking punishable under Australian law by 14 years in jail.

Marilyn | 22 July 2013  

Fr. Frank, Thank you ! I have been waiting to hear your response. God help us to show Compassion. Keep up your good work and words! Patricia

Patricia MacGinley | 24 July 2013  

The best balanced article we have read on the issue, although we don't believe there is a race to the bottom. Bob Carr is half right. Iranians, Sri Lankans, Afghanis, Burmese can take refuge in nearby countries without threat of persecution and may be real refugees, but if by choosing a boat trip to Australia they virtually self identify as economic refugees and not true refugees at all. Indigenous still remember earlier boat people to this country with bitter feelings.

John Thompson & jilpia Jones | 28 July 2013  

Thank you Frank for your incisive article on the asylum issue. Neither mainstream party seems to get it right. I feel ashamed of their attitudes and don't know if any of would deserve my vote. It's very confusing and very wrong the way both parties address the issue not just now,but in the past too

Denis Allen | 29 July 2013  

The imminent transfer of children to malaria-ridden Manus Island in the absence of any approval by UNHCR or respected refugee advocates like Paris Aristotle who have previously enjoyed the government’s trust makes the PNG Solution morally unacceptable. It’s only two weeks ago that the new Immigration Minister Tony Burke was rightly taking pride in the fact that kids had been removed from Manus Island, one of the first changes on his watch. Now the government provides these answers to critical questions: Will children be transferred? Everyone who arrives after the announcement will be transferred once health checks are complete and appropriate accommodation is available. Children or family groups will not be exempted from transfer. Exempting them would simply encourage people smugglers to put children on boats to Australia. What about unaccompanied minors? It will take longer for appropriate accommodation to become available for unaccompanied minors but once appropriate processing facilities are identified transfers can begin. While there are no blanket or broad exemptions to transfer to a regional processing country, Australia recognises that unaccompanied minors have particular guardianship and welfare requirements that need to be met. Australian authorities will be working closely with their PNG counterparts to develop a framework of arrangements to cater for the needs of unaccompanied minors once they are transferred to PNG. And what if an unaccompanied minor’s relatives are already in Australia? Is it any different if the relatives already have a permanent visa? It will not make a difference if unaccompanied minor has family in Australia. Everyone who arrives after the announcement will be transferred once health checks are complete and appropriate accommodation is available. If anyone – including unaccompanied minors or their family members in Australia – undertakes to bypass proper migration pathways and instead pay people smugglers for a boat trip to Australia, they will be liable under the Migration Act for transfer from Australia to a regional processing country. Unaccompanied minors are no exception to this established process. Will children be settled in PNG? The Australian Government, in partnership with the PNG Government, will support settlement services for those with refugee status. This includes children and their families. Unaccompanied minors will be settled as safe and appropriate accommodation and services are identified.

frank Brennan SJ | 30 July 2013  

Its time to question the morality and legality of what has been proposed with such haste in the lead up to a election. See http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-07-30/critics-question-asylum-policys-legality-and/4854492

Frank Brennan SJ | 31 July 2013  

The announced agreement between the Governments of Australian and Nauru announced this afternoon and providing for resettlement of refugees (including unaccompanied minors) in Nauru have not been scrutinised or approved by the Australian Parliament. The agreement depends on the figleaf of parliamentary coverage given by the tabling of documents by Minister Bowen On 10 September 2012 when he told Parliament: “By presenting the designation and accompanying documents in accordance with the legislation, we are providing the parliament with the opportunity to be satisfied that they are appropriate. Again, I call on both houses of parliament to approve this designation, to enable the first transfers of offshore entry persons to Nauru and to provide the circuit-breaker to irregular maritime arrivals called for by the expert panel's report.” The MOU tabled provided: “The Commonwealth of Australia will make all efforts to ensure that all persons entering Nauru under this MOU will depart within as short a time as is reasonably necessary for the implementation of this MOU, bearing in mind the objectives set out in the Preamble and Clause 1.” The Parliament did not disallow the designation of Nauru but that was because they thought that the proposal was that Nauru be a processing country, not a resettlement country.

Frank Brennan SJ | 03 August 2013  

My views on the Nauru deal: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-08-04/nauru-deal-done-with-election-in-mind/4863664

Frank Brennan SJ | 04 August 2013  

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