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Why no compromise on Manus and Nauru?



Robert Manne, who for 40 years has been and remains a resolute voice for refugees, has recently reflected on the appalling dead-end of policy seen on Manus Island and Nauru. His argument for a realistic policy that would rescue people from this hell deserves serious consideration.

Emotions spilled over as thousands of Melbournians rallied on the steps of the state library in coordinated, Australia-wide rallies protesting the High Courts decision regarding the 267 refugees facing deportation on 8 February 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images)He believes that the present policy reflects an abiding Australian passion for cultural control. Initially directed at keeping out non-Europeans, it has been more recently directed against people who came by boat to seek protection. Control was built on deterrence, initially by mandatory detention, then by denying refugees permanent residence, instituting off shore processing, intercepting boats, and detention on Nauru and Manus Island. These measures have been supported by a majority of Australians.

In order to persuade policy makers to adopt a better policy, Manne argues, it is necessary to understand both the 'Canberra mind' which finds the present regime necessary and the opposition to it. The received political wisdom is based in the experience of influxes of refugees and of the measures taken to curb them. From 1996 to 2001 the Howard government introduced mandatory detention and temporary protection visas and in 2001 offshore processing and interdiction of boats. This proved effective.

But after the Rudd government stopped interdiction and halted off-shore processing, the boats again multiplied, with many people dying at sea. It introduced mandatory detention on Manus Island, after which the Coalition government reinstated interdiction and harsh deterrent measures. Boat arrivals stopped. For Canberra, the policy stopped the boats and saved lives.

Manne recounts that after some self-searching he broke from the opposition in arguing that refugee advocacy must accept the political reality that governments decide refugee policy and that no conceivable government will abandon interdiction or the possibility of offshore processing.

To change policy demands accepting that interdiction and offshore processing will continue, while persuading governments that keeping people on Manus Island and Nauru is not necessary for keeping the boats stopped. That would allow the initial transfer to Australia of those who are ill, acceptance of the offer by New Zealand to accept others, and over time the transfer of those remaining on Manus Island and Nauru.

Manne concludes by asking why these realistic proposals have not been endorsed by opponents of the government policy. His reflections raise two questions. Is his delineation of the history and current state of play of Australian treatment of people who seek protection accurate? And should those supporting refugees support the proposed policy and similar realistic policies? I shall comment briefly in this article on the first question, and have addressed the second in more detail here.


"The control and deterrence mindset is not simply toxic. It is cancerous in that it corrupts government and seeks to metastasise in those who must work with it."


The link Manne makes between Australian treatment of people seeking protection and the abiding cultural demand to control outsiders is both illuminating and perceptive. The passion to control is generated by and generates fear, and is never satisfied, as shown by the paranoid fear of a single boat arriving or of a single person returning from Manus Island. The increasingly dehumanising treatment of refugees expresses this anxiety. It suggests that any policy designed to relax measures which triple lock the doors against entry to Australia will be difficult to commend.

Manne's description of the 'Canberra mindset' is also persuasive, and particularly the way in which it associates the rise and fall of boat numbers with the relaxing and tightening of harsh measures to stop boats. Like him I found that linkage morally confronting. I was guiltily relieved that the number of boats and drownings diminished, though appalled by the means used to secure it. Certainly, the appeal to compassion for the dead has set in concrete punitive measures against the living.

Though accepting this link, I would like to see serious study both of other factors involved in halting the boats, and also of the received wisdom that any political party showing sympathy for asylum seekers is destined to defeat. In neither the Tampa election nor the defeat of Rudd was that view unambiguously tested.

Manne is certainly right to say that opposition to the government's treatment of asylum seekers is grounded in ethical convictions. I shall reflect next week on the corollaries of this. But I believe that the resistance from the sector to negotiation about Manus Island and Nauru has more complex roots than Manne allows.

In the first place, the mindset of control and deterrence continues to devastate the lives of many asylum seekers in Australia as well as on Manus Island and Nauru. The long delays in processing claims, the refusal of permanent visas, the cutting of support, the stripping away of access to law, the granting only of temporary protection visas, the delay in processing claims and the removal of benefits have affected the mental and physical health of people who sought asylum before the Rudd legislation came in force. 

Refugee workers meet these people daily, and understandably set the evil of Manus Island and Nauru within the demand for a comprehensive reform of cruel legislation and regulation.

Second, the control and deterrence mindset is not simply toxic. It is cancerous in that it corrupts government and seeks to metastasise in those who must work with it. Governments infected by it inevitably come to regard and treat human beings as less than human, invent more ingenious ways of dehumanising them, and pressure others into compliance with their cruelty.

Emblematic of this corruption was the folding of the Immigration Department into the Border Force, headed by personnel from the Customs Department. Refugees were seen as parcels to be stamped and sent from place to place. As a result detention centres have been reconfigured as jails.

The mindset also displays itself in the bad faith shown by the government in response to litigation. When laws penalising individual asylum seekers are likely to be struck down by courts, the government withdraws from the case, but leaves the laws in place. The government has also consistently pressed refugee agencies to be parties to processes that deny client's rights and violate the professional standards of the bodies. Such actions are also designed to create divisions and mutual suspicion among agencies.

I believe that exposure to the harmful effects of the control and deter mindset on all people who seek asylum, and to the corruption that attends dealings with government, also need to be taken into account for the reluctance of refugee agencies, rightly or wrongly, to support enthusiastically partial reform of policy.

A final point about the relationship between government and refugee advocates concerns the polarisation of Australians on the issue. This also has been fomented by government through fake news, such as the story of people throwing children overboard at the time of Tampa, and the constant dog-whistling about Muslim refugees later. The dilemma this has posed for refugee advocates is that criticism of refugee policy immediately draws a hostile response and the controversy simply entrenches defence of harsh measures. It is difficult to engender reasonable public conversation about it.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.




Main image: Emotions spilled over as thousands of Melbournians rallied on the steps of the state library in coordinated, Australia-wide rallies protesting the High Courts decision regarding the 267 refugees facing deportation on 8 February 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Robert Manne, refugees, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

In matters of immigration, including those seeking asylum as refugees, governments are expected to act in the best interests of national security on behalf of the country's citizens. Of necessity, in the interests of security, governments are privy to matters of which the populace is generally unaware and which should not be broadcast in the interests of national security. While this situation prevails it is very difficult for the public, unarmed with any knowledge of some aspects of government's security decisions, to offer any constructive advice to government. Perhaps this is one reason why it is "difficult to engender reasonable public conversation" about those still detained on Manus and Nauru. We have no choice but to trust our agencies in matters of national security. Let's hope they are not corrupt!

john frawley | 03 October 2018  

I abhor offshore detention, many aspects of current onshore treatment as well as the practice of turning back boats of people seeking protection in Australia. I can communicate that to politicians, collaborate with others who also care about these matters and work behind the scenes towards change. I do not think we have simply to trust the decision makers and their agencies: they are enacting policies that are inhumane. However, I do not yet know how constructive it is to raise my voice publicly.

Fran Sheahan | 03 October 2018  

I have not seen "national security" quoted by our government in the context of asylum seekers except for a tiny number of people given an adverse ASIO report. This cannot possibly be a valid reason for incarcerating children while the US is accepting people from Manus and Nauru after further stringent security checks. Trust - I have none in our current immigration system and its Minister and recent visas granted through ministerial intervention suggest that corruption does indeed flourish.

Mary Holland | 03 October 2018  

To accept that Australia's current cruelty to refugees by placing them indefinitely on off-shore hell-holes is justifiable as it saves drownings at sea is accepting that the end justifies the means. That is the principle used by suicide bombers. Our Government are operating like terrorists! Australia needs to immediately bring all those refugees detained offshore back here to settle. The Whitlam Government flew tens of thousands of Vietname refugees here years ago after coming to an arrangement with the Malaysian Government. Australia could seek a similar arrangement with Indonesia. A queue could be formed. Any refugees who came here by boat could be flown back to Indonesia and put at the back of the queue. A humane solution needs bipartisanship. Sadly both the Coalition and Labor seem to be more interested in playing politics with the lives of refugees than forming a humane refugee policy. Tragically there are now children on Nauru who are suffering from 'resignation syndrome'. They have given up on life, refusing to eat and eventually even to drink. Their lives are slipping away and the Nauruan Government is delaying their transfer to Australia because it gets paid about $3000 a month for each refugee kept there.

Grant Allen | 04 October 2018  

John, you raise a key point here. Government's business is "national security". Unfortunately, this has become a shield for hiding information from the public. "It's secret for your own good". Refugee protection is not a matter of national security, except in those limited cases where the asylum seeker concerned may pose a security risk. The Refugee Convention allows such persons to be denied asylum. Given the importance of the right to asylum, though, such claims should be tested in open court (even if some parts of the hearing may have to be in camera) - as they have been successfully in many jurisdictions. Government would jump from this, to the claim that ALL refugee/immigration matters are matters unavailable to the public. Unfortunately, we already know (from "filing-cabinet gate") that the immigration minister has deliberately filibustered the ASIO vetting process to ensure that refugee claims could not be filed on time. We also know that the Department has lied at many levels about the treatment of people seeking asylum. In light of all this, I would respectfully disagree both that this is a matter of national security and that "we have no choice but to trust our agencies".

Justin Glyn SJ | 04 October 2018  

Thanks for a highly insightful and thought-provoking article. Although I have had sympathy with Governments needing to do something tough on order to stop all the drownings, I think that you are quite right that the nastiness and downright mean-ness that then crept in, perhaps particularly under Dutton, have been a national disgrace.

Eugene | 04 October 2018  

If we as electors are not privy to government insider information, surely we are all shadowboxing in trying to understand "the Canberra mindset"? I commend Manne and anyone else for trying. Those of us who have not walked in either the shoes of the government policy makers, or indeed, those of asylum seekers, find it almost impossible to believe the situation on Manus/Nauru as witnessed by doctors and social workers. Man's inhumanity to man is the name of the game and our political "masters" are playing it while trying to tell the world what a great place Australia is and having a seat on the UN Human Rights Council; some of the council's members according to Julie Bishop have "human rights records which are questionable at best" If the foregoing quote were not so hypocritical it would be the joke( in bad taste) of the century.

Henri | 04 October 2018  

I have spoken with a number of federal politicians in the Labor party about the situation on Manus and Nauru; from our local member to the deputy leader. They have all expressed their distaste at the situation. Nick McKim of the Greens who has visited Manus and still is in contact with people there has shared with me the horrors of the situation. Eric Abetz argued that these prisons were necessary for the common good and then when he noticed my dissatisfaction with his trite answer made the offhanded remark, "I suppose you won't be voting Liberal then". This is the sorry state we find ourselves in today.

Tom Kingston | 04 October 2018  

I live in Belgium. Readers might like to know that the Australian treatment of refugees is frequently cited in newspapers and elsewhere as the way for Europe to go in dealing with its refugee crisis, the so-called "Australian model". Politicians, and ordinary people, are divided on this issue. However, it is clear that the model is praised by political parties on the extreme and less extreme right, such as the current government in Italy and the deliberately provocative minister for immigration in Belgium. Others, with a sense of morality and justice, are ashamed of "the Australian model" but seem to be losing the battle in the general and inexorable move to the (extreme?) right throughout Europe, and indeed elsewhere. We are reminded of the way democratic countries refused entry to Jewish refugees under the Nazis. We have not learnt much in the intervening years, either in Australia or Europe, about what it means to have and foster human values.

Keith Carlon | 04 October 2018  

I don't know whether Eric Abetz is right in believing that these prisons must exist for the common good. I am absolutely sure that the existence of a tiny group of powerless, oppressed and tortured people is not. In fact, our acceptance of it is a malignancy that is spreading among us and must be stopped. It's absolutely necessary, I think, to address this now, separately from the longer work of addressing asylum-seeker policy. Once they're all dead, it will be too late for all of us. By the way, thank God for the Jesuits.

Joan Seymour | 06 October 2018  

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