Rights and responsibilities

Some matters did escape wider attention during the election campaign. Australia’s agreement with Papua New Guinea over the use of Manus Island as an off-shore detention and processing centre for asylum seekers, expired at the end of October.

In September, ABC radio’s AM program reported on the changing attitudes of those in PNG to playing host to Australia’s unwanted asylum seekers. The facility at Lombrun Naval Base, has laid dormant since May this year, when its sole remaining resident, Aladdin Sisalem was finally granted asylum in Australia.

Speaking to AM, Manus Island Provincial Administrator Wep Kinawe suggested that while local residents had initially opposed the centre, the 7 million kina extended to the people of Manus Island, via Australia’s AusAid program (principally to refurbish schools), has gone a long way toward changing their minds.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer denied that any approach had been made to PNG to negotiate an extension of the contract. The alternative processing centre, under construction on Christmas Island, is not yet complete.

Irrespective of the government’s success in negotiating with PNG, the troubling aspect is the government’s continued insistence on utilising off-shore, mandatory and indefinite detention as a strategy in dealing with asylum seekers. Such policies contravene the rights of asylum seekers under the UN Convention on Refugees and are particularly punitive in the case of children.

Moreover, the ruling of the High Court on the 7th October supporting the government’s right under the Migration Act to indefinitely detain children means that it is even more urgent that this law is repealed. The moral imperative is clear. In handing down the Court’s decision, Justice Murray Gleeson said that while he was bound to make his judgment under the law, his personal sympathies lay with the appellant.

Speaking in response to the decision of the High Court, Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said, ‘Our policies have worked, and because of that we don’t have kids being put on shockingly unsafe boats, sailing across perilous seas because their parents have paid a people smuggler, and we’ve put a stop to that’. The cost of such policies is that children, and adults, continue to languish for years in refugee camps in Asia and across the globe.

Whilst Australians readily embrace free trade agreements and happily enter into partnerships with multinational companies, we are slow to acknowledge that we are part of a global human community. We are well practiced at exercising our rights as global citizens, less expert at practicing our responsibilities.      



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