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Turning back Australia’s refugee policy

  • 21 September 2022
World Migrant and Refugee Sunday this year takes place at a time of crisis. Australia and the world are faced with the challenge of handling and recovering from COVID, of economic crisis that demand great changes, and of threatening rifts in international relationships. These crises can obscure the suffering and needs of refugees.

Yet it is precisely war, starvation, drought and the other signs of climate change that have led to an increasing number of people to seek food, security and a future for their children outside their borders. It has also led people in relatively wealthy nations to shut their door against refugees and to jail and exile people who seek protection from them. Australia has been brutal in this respect.

In Australia, however, World Migrant and Refugee Sunday also occurs in a time of possibility. With the change of Federal Government and a softening of language and actions concerning refugees, people who seek protection and those who care for them have dared to hope for a more compassionate policy. The sympathy expressed for the Nadesaligam family and subsequent grant of permanent residence,  the release from long-term detention of many vulnerable people, and other small changes, have encouraged hope of a policy based on compassion and not on deterrence.

The story of how refugees have been treated in recent years shows what needs to change. July this year marked the beginning of the tenth anniversary since offshore refugee processing was introduced in Australia. That step marked a change in Australian policy from an uneasy balance between respect for people in need and the pressure to deter further arrivals. The exclusion from settlement in Australia of people who arrived by boat and the punitive conditions of their life on Nauru and even more on Manus Island were designed to discourage other people from seeking protection in Australia.

In this process the principle of deterrence has become the guiding doctrine of Australian policy towards people who have sought protection. It is deeply corrupting because it is based on the conviction that it is acceptable to punish one group of people in order to deter others. That principle knows no limits on the groups of people to whom it may be applied nor on the abusive treatment that may be inflicted on them.  Those who administer it persuade themselves that any display of humanity to refugees will encourage boats to head for Australia. They will see