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The bi-partisanship shame of refugee policy



What possessed Filippo Grandi, the relatively new United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to go public last week, having a go at Australia for our government’s treatment of unvisaed asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat? He repeated UNHCR’s demand that Australia terminate offshore processing of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island and that we not outsource our responsibilities to others. 

NAIDOC Week 2017 posterHe claimed that UNHCR had agreed to the Australia-US deal back in November 2016 ‘on the clear understanding that vulnerable refugees with close family ties in Australia would ultimately be allowed to settle’ here. It is very rare for the Commissioner himself to make such public criticisms of any country.

No doubt, his Australian officers would have cautioned him that any such statement would be grist to the mill of Minister Peter Dutton preparing to take on his new super-ministry of Home Affairs. The timing of the statement also caused grief to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten who was coming under pressure with the lead up to the ALP’s New South Wales conference at which the Left was to agitate the settlement of some proven refugees from Nauru and Manus Island in Australia. The day before UNHCR issued its statement, Barrie Cassidy had asked Shorten on ABC Insiders: ‘Is your policy that they would never, ever return to Australia?’ Shorten answered unequivocally, ‘That is part of it, yes, just to go to the short answer.’

The policy was first enunciated by Kevin Rudd when he returned to the prime ministership prior to the 2013 election. He joined Tony Abbott in a race to the bottom, pledging that any unvisaed asylum seeker coming by boat to Australia would be transported to a Pacific island and that they would never be able to come to Australia. Labor’s Sam Dastyari whose own grandparents sought and received asylum in Australia during John Howard’s prime ministership concedes that the refugee policies of the major political parties since 2013 have been ‘punitive’ and ‘inhumane’: ‘We went to (the 2013) election saying they would never come to Australia. That was Labor Party policy.’

In the lead up to the 2016 election, the bipartisan policy hit a road bump when the PNG Supreme Court struck down the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island. Such detention was not allowed under the PNG Constitution. Richard Marles, Labor’s Shadow Minister for Immigration, disclosed on ABC Lateline: ‘The agreement that we signed with the Government of PNG was for 12 months and that’s because we fully expected that the vast bulk of those people on Manus Island would be processed and resettled within that period of time.’

He limply defended the morality of the policy noting: ‘What we were not seeking to do was make an example of 2,000 people as a form of deterrence. We were absolutely not seeking to put people in a form of indefinite detention. And we totally acknowledge that the vast majority of those on Manus and Nauru who have been assessed have been found to be genuine refugees. They are deserving a safe, humane and dignified refuge.’

During the 2016 election campaign, both major political parties remained committed to stopping the boats and to offshore processing with the assurance that no proven refugee would be resettled in Australia. They had lost any interest whatever in providing ‘a safe, humane and dignified refuge’. A month after the 2016 election, UNHCR ‘renew[ed] its call for refugees and asylum seekers to be immediately moved off Nauru to humane conditions with adequate support and services’.

It’s now three years since any boat arrived, and some of the proven refugees on Manus Island and Nauru have now been there for four years. None of them has been resettled. Australian government officials, including our ambassador for people smuggling, Andrew Goledzinowski, have been working tirelessly to find permanent solutions for those proven refugees.


"No wonder UNHCR spat the dummy. They could see that the major political parties in Australia remain committed to an inhumane head-in-the-sand non-solution, when a crisis is imminent."


The most significant breakthrough came last August when the lame duck Obama Administration agreed in secret to take up to 1200 proven refugees from Nauru and Manus Island provided Australia was happy in turn to do its part in taking some refugees from Central America who were covered by a protection transfer arrangement between Costa Rica and the US.

Minister Dutton told Parliament in October 2016 that the caseload destined for Australia would include ‘refugees from Central America who are seeking international protection from kidnappings, human trafficking, family violence and targeted killings against their communities by known gangs’. Dutton kept emphasising that such arrangements were not possible without a close working relationship with UNHCR.

When Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull finally announced the US deal on 13 November 2016, UNHCR welcomed the announcement as ‘a much-needed, long-term solution for some refugees who have been held in Nauru and Papua New Guinea for over three years and who remain in a precarious situation’. UNHCR said that it would play its role endorsing referrals made from Australia to the US ‘on a one-off, good offices, humanitarian basis’ but that ‘UNHCR remains gravely concerned about the fate of all vulnerable individuals in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Appropriate solutions must be found for all of them.’

Even back then, it was known that there would be hundreds of proven refugees who would not make the cut for entry to the US. UNHCR was adamant that it would participate in the Australia-US deal only on the proviso that Australia remained committed to finding a solution for all proven refugees. With 65 million displaced people in the world, UNHCR has little interest in lending its good name to bilateral deals between nations which leave proven vulnerable refugees with no prospect whatever of reasonable resettlement. UNHCR was specific in its media release of 13 November 2016: ‘Australia must be part of the solution for refugees and asylum seekers who have sought its protection, and particularly those who have family ties to Australia or special needs.’

No matter what Mr Dutton says, there can be no doubt that UNHCR had committed itself since November 2016 to assisting Australia with US transfers from Nauru and Manus Island on the understanding that there would be appropriate arrangements made for proven vulnerable refugees who did not make the cut into the US or who would be more appropriately settled elsewhere. It was only very recently that UNHCR was informed by Australia that it refuses to accept even vulnerable proven refugees with close family ties in Australia and that ‘their only option is to remain where they are or to be transferred to Cambodia or the United States’.

No wonder UNHCR spat the dummy. They could see that the major political parties in Australia remain committed to an inhumane head-in-the-sand non-solution, when a crisis is imminent. The main service providers on Nauru and Manus Island are Broadspectrum and their subcontractors. All their contracts expire on 27 October 2017. Broadspectrum’s Spanish parent company has made clear that it cannot afford the corporate risk and damage of being connected with such an inhumane regime. The PNG government is adamant that the Manus Island processing centre has to close in October.

 While there is room to debate the prudence of UNHCR’s public dummy spit, there is no room to doubt their moral condemnation of governments of both political persuasions in Australia when they say: ‘There is a fundamental contradiction in saving people at sea, only to mistreat and neglect them on land’.

I daresay Mr Grandi is shocked and appalled that Australia could contemplate going to a third election with both major political parties being committed to no permanent solution for vulnerable proven refugees with close family ties, other than Cambodia which is no solution at all except for the most cynical of legal fundamentalists who argue that Cambodia is a signatory to the Refugees Convention.

It’s three years since any boat made it to Australia. On the third anniversary, Mr Dutton told us, ‘Since the last successful people smuggling boat arrived in July 2014, Operation Sovereign Borders has stopped 18 boats carrying 361 potential illegal maritime arrivals. These boats have been turned-back where it was safe to do so or their occupants were returned via air.’ The boats would have remained stopped, and will remain stopped, even if we were to provide resettlement for the remaining caseload of proven refugees on Manus Island and Nauru.

The major political parties should hang their heads in shame. Preparing for the next election, neither Liberal nor Labor provide a moral solution to the complexities of Australian border protection. Sadly, I doubt that even the wake-up call from Filippo Grandi will stir us from our moral stupor.

But be certain of this. By October something will snap on Nauru or Manus Island, and our unctuous politicians will be out there blaming the proven vulnerable refugees, including those with close family ties in Australia, telling them that we needed them to perish slowly in the Pacific Ocean so as to send a message in the Indian Ocean.


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

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, refugees



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Existing comments

I despair. I belong to a country determined to sacrifice lives so politicians can get votes. Turnbull and Abbott and Shorten and Dutton can solicit votes from a populace they have brainwashed to fear strangers in boats. We can rant and rave, we can donate money to advocacy organisations, we can read articles in Eureka Street and comment. In other words, we can do nothing about it. I despair.

Janet | 02 August 2017  

I am ashamed of our country's stance. The key bit in your article is that the boats would have remained stopped even if we were to provide resettlement for these proven refugees. It's tragic that they are losing their lives in this limbo.

Georgina Wright | 02 August 2017  

Indeed we hang our heads in shame, Frank. Refugee groups protest continually, as you are aware - currently intensifying their efforts. But to deaf ears! To accept that this 'moral stupor' is bipartisan is even more intolerable.

vivien | 02 August 2017  

it can all be summed up by the words of Jesus; "What ever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me."

Robert Liddy | 02 August 2017  

Thank you Frank. Appalling situation. I think we all should have a major dummy spit and keep spitting until we bring all these people to Australia and spend the rest of our lives apologising for what we have done to our brothers and sisters. Jorie

Jorie | 02 August 2017  

Frank, is Australia going to take refugees from Central America?And what kind of "close working relationship does Dutton have with UNHCR?Frankly-sorry about the pun - refugees have become political pawns on the chessboard of both the government and the opposition, to be used to their advantage at election time. In the circumstances, isn't it a bit of (bad) joke that Australia is said to be seeking a seat on, I think, the UN Human Rights Council? What kind of self serving hypocrisy is that?

Helen | 02 August 2017  

The truth is that Australia, as a society, has been founded on immigration and refugees. That is an enduring historical truth. The earliest convicts were hardly "legal" immigrants (at least not in the view of the indigenous people) and the vast majority of Irish who came to Australia in the 19th century did so to escape famine, poverty and severe British oppression. Then, before World War II, no matter how reluctantly, we accepted some Jewish refugees from Hitler's Reich and then, after that war, took in many DPs ("Displaced Persons") and other refugees from diverse forms of oppression and deprivation. We've also welcomed many people who simply wanted a better life. The truly depressing aspect of the past few decades is not simply that many of those who sought to come here were the victims of situations which we helped to create (wars in the Middle East, for instance) but that we've been so hostile to them. Is it because of a deep racism within Australian society? Whatever the reasons, the willingness of our so-called political leaders to be complicit in them, or their gross and craven unwillingness to challenge our deficiencies, has been deplorable.

John CARMODY | 02 August 2017  

All Australians I know do not like the inhumane treatment of refugees. The NZ government needs to do more get its people back to NZ out of the camps. In fact I do not know one Australian who likes their government. Up to you all Australians to get a more humane government.

Noeline Champion | 02 August 2017  

Thank you, Frank. The moral character of our leaders is on display for all to see.

Kevin Liston | 02 August 2017  

There is a nice juxtaposition in the two articles in ES today. I can empathise with Janet in her despair but then I read John Ellison Davies and his quote from F D Roosevelt 'I think that we can perhaps meditate a little on those Americans ten thousand years from now...Let us hope that at least they will give us the benefit of the doubt, that they will believe we have honestly striven every day and generation to preserve for our descendants a decent land to live in and a decent form of government to operate under.' Substitute Australians for Americans and read this is as a challenge to us today. What can we do? We cannot lose hope and we must continue to pray. What is the most effective action we can take?

Joanna Elliott | 02 August 2017  

Much of this piece is a clear setting out of the history of the problem. But the last paragraph is a rather cruel, I'll-tempered attack on those with whom the writer disagrees. What a pity that that paragraph might negatively impact the reception of an otherwise useful piece.

Fr John Fleming | 02 August 2017  

Thanks Frank Brennan. It is hard to believe this is happening in our names. Both current on-shore and off-shore refugee policies will some day be our national disgrace, but it will be too late. How can we do anything to change? Like the previous commenter, I despair.

Kat | 02 August 2017  

It is very sad when our country, which promotes itself on decent values - a fair go, courage, optimism for example - cannot put forward a brave (even with some risks) alternative to the policy both parties are wed to. Our politicians don't have much imagination and we seem to be driven by fear. I am concerned that there will be a long term price to pay.

Joe Logan | 02 August 2017  

How can any committed Christian refuse entry to Australia of these proven refugees on Manus & Nauru, particularly those with family connections in Australia? I believe that there are more Australians who support their acceptance into Australia, than there are who oppose this.

Kath Baldini | 02 August 2017  

Thank you Frank for a clear and authoritative overview of the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres. As you so rightly say the two major parties are in this together. However, there is a third party that is supported, at last count, by 10% of the population that does not agree with the terrible treatment of the asylum seekers. So let's hope the Green Party continues to support those seeking asylum and we all take some heart in the 10% and hopefully more who show compassion towards those desperately in need. Thanks also to the Saturday Paper who has covered this issue consistently.

Tomk | 02 August 2017  

Thanks Frank. Clear and informative.

Anne Benjamin | 02 August 2017  

I will not vote for any politician or would-be-politician standing for a party which will not allow refugees to settle in Australia.

Sheila | 02 August 2017  

Thank you so much for this article. Thank you for broadening our knowledge of the situation with these facts. The least we can do is share this article widely to broaden the minds of others too.

Anne Shannon | 02 August 2017  

With the silence and complicity of the ALP toward calculated cruelty and worse, on and offshore, it leaves me scratching my head as to what it takes to get people to leave them in droves. There is an alternate party of compassion for those with courage. Neither in this duopoly can manage to stop people drowning at sea without torturing 2000 innocent people. No vision as well as no compassion. Manus is in crisis- we are at SOS stage on Manus and Nauru after 4 years of living hell. What are the rest of the followers of Jesus prepared to do to ensure this stops ( we know many are working hard but this is a large church). Why aren't we all in the streets condemning this abhorrence? Where are our values and our care for the marginalised and the refugee so central to our faith community? This brings shame on our country but even condemnation by the UN does not seem to move us to act- or enough of us to act. Join us this Friday 4th 5.30 State Library Melbourne to take it to the streets again. We may be ignored but we will not stop standing with them. Everyone welcome.

Christina Coombe | 02 August 2017  

Great article. Feel helpless. What can we do? Voting Greens as I've done doesn't accomplish anything. Ashamed of our country.

Chris Vincent | 02 August 2017  

Well done Frank.

tim mckenna | 02 August 2017  

Thank you Fr Frank for a wonderful article. I just hope that many, many Australians will read it.

Breda O'Reilly | 02 August 2017  

Perhaps, in 20, 30, or 50 years, another "apology" will be warranted: to the many incarcerated by the bipartisan actions of these times?? Perhaps we need a new Party of multi-ideologies intent on winning a deciding vote on the cross bench of the LA? I am at a loss...

Peter | 02 August 2017  

John Fleming, I am angry but not ill-tempered. And I am not the one being cruel. The cruelty is at the hands of those who authorise and approve the ongoing warehousing of proven vulnerable refugees for over four years, some of whom are children. To name the cruelty of others is not cruel. To remain silent is to be cruel.

Frank Brennan SJ | 02 August 2017  

The relatively new high commissioner is misguided. Australia has an extremely supportable policy on people claiming refugee status. We have a large, well-defined program for bringing refugees to safety. The UNHCR has no justification for criticising our well thought out policy.

Peter matters | 03 August 2017  

The Government’s rationale for ongoing cruel treatment of proven refugees on Nauru and Manus Island has been laid bare in the conversation between President Trump and Prime Minister Turnbull. ‘Trump: Why haven’t you let them out? Why have you not let them into your society? Turnbull: Okay, I will explain why. It is not because they are bad people. It is because in order to stop people smugglers, we had to deprive them of the product. So we said if you try to come to Australia by boat, even if we think you are the best person in the world, even if you are a Noble [sic] Prize winning genius, we will not let you in. Because the problem with the people — Trump: That is a good idea. We should do that too. You are worse than I am. Turnbull: This is our experience.’ The falsity of the Government’s sometimes feeble claim that the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island are no longer Australia's responsibility is laid bare Mr Turnbull’s statement to Mr Trump which commences with the mischaracterisation of these proven refugees as ‘basically economic refugees’: ‘None of these people are from the conflict zone. They are basically economic refugees from Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. That is the vast bulk of them. They have been under our supervision for over three years now and we know exactly everything about them.'

Frank Brennan SJ | 04 August 2017  

Thank you, Frank. On my family tree there are at least eight convicts brought here by boat and in shame. Their descendants, now numbering in their thousands, have managed to contribute fruitfully as citizens of Australia. It is an Australia, alas, that is blind to compassion and to the truth that refugees, given the chance, can 'grace' a country far better than any number of cruel Border protection policies

P.M. Kenny | 05 August 2017  

So what was the point of Malcolm Turnbull converting to Catholicism a few years ago? God help us.

AURELIUS | 05 August 2017  

Thank you so much Frank Brennan for putting the Asylum Seeker case so eloquently. Jesus allegedly said, "If a child asks for bread do we give him a stone?" . Yes, I'm ashamed, but we do, but not in my name or anyone I know. The Green votes could flood in if people voted according to their values. Caroline

Caroline Davis | 10 August 2017  

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