Quality of mercy is strained beyond hope

How many refugees and asylum seekers are on Nauru and Manus. How long have they been there now? What is their future? How many have left either for their home country or for other destinations?

It’s very difficult to be precise. The Department of Home Affairs publishes statistics related to those in detention centres only. For Manus, that figure is now zero: the centre has been closed.

We rely on journalists and human rights organisations for our current statistics, and the Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton constantly complains about their “unreliability/bias”.

Whatever the number is, some people have been there since 2012, and their current situation is unconscionable.

Many of these asylum seekers have been found be refugees. As such they are formally entitled to international protection. They are not criminals. They are acting as is their right under UN Conventions. This means that the country that has determined their status should be responsible for their settlement. An unknown but small number of the asylum seekers have not been found to be refugees and would normally, under international law, be subject to return to their own country.

Back to Manus and Nauru. Human rights lawyers and civil society have been battling for years to bring these people to Australia. Both government and opposition have been immovable. They swear none these people will ever come here. Minister Dutton has gone so far as to say that even a glimmer of compassion (perhaps to a dying man or a suicidal teenager) would only encourage the people smugglers!

Glacially slow to act

Some of us thought that it was counter-productive to fight to bring them to Australia: it would be the right thing to do but it would be such a protracted battle, with refugees suffering still longer. There must be an alternative and a quicker way to resolve the matter.

With glacial slowness, Home Affairs started to explore options. They spoke of third country resettlement, but there were no results. Surely they must have learnt from their last attempt to resettle a boatload of Sri Lankans who were rescued by an Australian naval boat, the Oceanic Viking, in 2009 – most countries quickly responded that it was Australia’s problem!

With plodding slowness, Home Affairs discovered that refugees could only be resettled in countries that had acceded to the Refugee Convention. In all of south and south-east Asia, only the Philippines and Cambodia recognise refugees. The Philippines declined to take any, pointing out that they had enough problems already trying to care for their population.

The Cambodians agreed and Australia arranged a special aid package, some $40 million. Seven (7) people have gone to Cambodia at least six (6) of those have left Cambodia.

Then there’s Kyrgyzstan, if we extend the geographical net further…but they too refused. We won’t even speculate as to whether Kazakhstan was approached!

To measure what is happening using the word “progress”, as in Italian politics, is to imbue the notion of what’s occurring with too positive a spin. The glacial slowness continued, although some individuals were resettled, such as the man who went to Canada on a community sponsorship program that had been arranged by a Canadian woman who had worked in Manus. A cartoonist found a home in Europe, possibly helped by Australian cartoonist First Dog on the Moon.

Perhaps these refugees were not considered “worthy” of resettlement to any of the usual resettlement countries (USA, Canada, New Zealand). Finally in 2016, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull exerted pressure on the Home Affairs department to find durable solutions. Thus was born (trumpet fanfare here) “the US solution”.

Some refugees have been Trumped

Resettlement is never quick and we must accept that there is a 1-2 year gap between interview by the resettlement country and departure to that country. In between there are credibility checks and security checks and medical checks and more recently enhanced security screening…but things do progress, even if glacially for people held in the tropics.

Resettlement processing has been slowed further by President Trump introducing idiosyncratic additional security measures. Now we have hit another hurdle, the US Supreme Court has upheld a ”travel ban” for certain nationalities. What this means for some refugees (Iranians, Sudanese, Somalis) remains to be seen.

And “remaining” is precisely what Prime Minister Turnbull and Home Affairs Minister Dutton are advocating: “Let us exhaust one option before considering the next!” is their approach, which makes glacial speed appear to be doing the light warp.

Meanwhile attempted suicides continue on the island “prisons”.

We should not have to exhaust the US option completely before we investigate another possibility.  Under resettlement protocols, once a refugee is rejected by one resettlement country, they can be submitted to another. New Zealand has offered to consider 150 refugees: those, if any, rejected by the US should immediately be submitted for Kiwi consideration. And as for those refugees whose nationality may be problematic to the US: do we wait for further legal clarifications from the US, something that could take months or years, or do they get resubmitted now?

The mental health of these refugees is rapidly deteriorating. Home Affairs – Australia, Australians – have a huge responsibility to act quickly and humanely to solve these “refugees” problems. Even if you call them “asylum seekers”, they are people first.

Enough is enough: sanity skewed

Enough is enough already. Six years on Manus or Nauru in constant uncertainty is already much more than needed to skew the sanity of any one of us. Neither PNG nor Nauru is a resettlement country, nor should they be considered as such. The Cambodian solution has failed…

In the past, more asylum seekers came to Australia by plane than by boat. Often there were several thousand of them a year. The number in recent years has decreased rapidly because of Australia’s close cooperation with neighbouring countries in airport management techniques.  For example, Malaysia and Indonesia have been encouraged to make all travellers from the middle-east obtain visas rather than receiving a visa on entry, which is a courtesy normally extended to all Muslim nations, and airlines must pay costs if they transport someone to Oz without a valid entry visa.

Australia will never “stop the boats” completely: while there are desperate people around, families of fishermen will try desperate voyages, people smugglers will still try to make a buck from the uneducated and unaware.

Of the few boats that have entered Australian waters recently, passengers have mainly come from rural areas of Sri Lanka and Nepal: such people are not necessarily sophisticated enough to know what Australia’s current border regime is.

The word is certainly out in asylum seeker communities in Malaysia and Indonesia : “Forget boat voyages to Australia”. UNHCR in Indonesia is even telling refugees that they cannot hope for resettlement, the waiting list is too long.

Yet Minister Dutton continues to believe that even the smallest hint of compassion for mentally (and some physically) ill people, after six years of hopeless detention, will fuel a flotilla of boats.

ENDS 180723

 

See also: https://www.canberratimes.com.au/politics/federal/visa-queues-swell-as-peter-dutton-s-migration-cuts-bite-20180720-p4zsp6.html

 

 

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