Rudd’s new asylum seeker policy has sparked fresh anger among refugee advocates on an issue that continues to divide the nation.
The newly signed Regional Settlement Arrangement means Papua New Guinea will assume the responsibility of assessing unauthorised boat arrivals. Those found to be refugees will be settled in PNG.
In his statement, PM Rudd expressed the moral reasoning behind the decision, expressing that Australians are sick of seeing asylum seekers drown and Australia’s servicemen and women risking their lives.
“There is nothing compassionate about criminal operations which see children and families drowning at sea, ” PM Rudd said.
Renowned lawyer and refugees advocate, Julian Burnside, recently wrote in The Age that this sort of rhetoric is misleading. The “punitive measures” that both major parties favour “creates the facade that if Australia purports a harsh enough regime, hypothetical arrivals will cease, seeking instead their chances with the Taliban”, he wrote. “In any case, it’s not the Australia we should strive for.”
Many are not convinced this hardline policy will bring a better outcome for refugees fleeing war-torn countries. Daniel Webb from the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) is sceptical of the arrangement’s viability. “Over the last year Australia has been unable to develop humane and appropriate services for the 145 detainees currently held at the Manus Island facility. It defies belief that safe and appropriate accommodation will somehow now be created for the thousands expected to arrive”, he said. Among others, Amnesty International, HRLC, and former Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser have accused Labor’s policy of offloading Australia’s humanitarian responsibility to an under-resourced country.
Liberal vs Labor
With this new hardline Labor policy, questions are raised over whether either of the two major parties offer anything significantly different from the other. Mr Fraser said: “Protection of human rights under the Labor party are no better than protection of human rights under the Liberal party.”
Publisher of australianpolitics.com, Malcolm Farnsworth, interestingly called this move by Rudd a “political masterstroke.” He wrote: “Rudd had implicitly dared Abbott to oppose him on PNG. Abbott blinked first. “I welcome it but it won’t work under Mr. Rudd, ” he spluttered lamely.” “A potent electoral issue was smudged and blurred and neutralised”, wrote Mr Farnsworth. In other words, Abbott could no longer distinguish his policy from Rudd’s.
The Greens were quick to respond to Rudd’s announcement, working to distinguish themselves from the two main parties.
Federal Greens candidate for Sydney, Dianne Hiles, criticised Rudd’s political tactic. She told Vibewire: “it’s rapidly turning into a hairy-chested ping-pong match as to who can come up with the most outlandish policy to deal with a problem we haven’t got.”
“People arriving here to seek protection does not affect the average Sydney-sider’s quality of life”, she said.
Ms Hiles called on the fairly left-leaning Sydney electorate, currently held by Labor, to not respond to the Coalition’s “dog-whistling” and “Labor’s lack of back-burning standing up to it”. She believes that Australia has a legal obligation to help asylum seekers. “The Coalition obviously doesn’t understand international law, ” she said, “Lots of people in Sydney do.”
Shortly after the announcement, Greens leader, Christine Milne, accused Kevin Rudd of leap-frogging Tony Abbott in cruelty. She called the new Labor policy “ruthless and repugnant.” “It is in complete contravention with our moral obligations under the refugee convention”, she said.
On social media, refugee advocates have voiced their outrage. Facebook profile pictures, stating “Seeking Asylum is a Human Right”, began circulating.
Snap rallies were rapidly organised in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth, demanding that Australia welcome refugees. Over 1000 people rallied outside Sydney’s Town Hall at noon on Saturday 20 July, only a day after Kevin Rudd’s announcement on Friday. Another Sydney protest is organised for this Sunday at noon outside Town Hall.
Image credit: Georgina Bell
Amnesty International accused the Australian government of ‘passing the parcel’. “Mark this day in history as the day Australia decided to turn its back on the world’s most vulnerable people, closed the door and threw away the key”, said Graeme McGregor from Amnesty International Australia.
Mr McGregor points to the high cost of housing asylum seekers in the overheated and overcrowded offshore facilities. It is expected to cost $2.3 billion for the 600 people already living on Manus (PNG) and Nauru, according to Mr McGregor. With more expected to be relocated, Mr McGregor believes “The Prime Minister has shown his willingness to pay any financial costs to bypass humanitarian obligations.”
A June 2013 UNHRC report of Manus Island paints a dismal picture of “harsh” physical living conditions and deteriorating mental health among asylum seekers who experience increased “pressure, uncertainty and feelings of vulnerability”.
Regarding discourse of the asylum seeker debate, many have lamented over the tendency of ‘politics’ to overshadow the human faces of refugees.
Former Lieutenant Commander from the navy, Barry Learoyd, recounted his traumatic experiences rescuing asylum seekers at sea to Sydney Morning Herald National Times.
”People are making up their minds based on what the media is putting out, ” he says. ”If they could see the conditions that these people are arriving in, they may have a change of heart. They’re people trying, as we all do, to make a better life for themselves.”
An Hazara refugee from Afghanistan told The Guardian his story. “In Afghanistan, as an Hazara, what I look like defines me. It is what got my father and my brother kidnapped by the Taliban”, he said.
To him, the horrors he faced in Afghanistan meant he had no autonomous choice but to flee. Those on his boat imagined Australians as nice, respectful and embracing of human rights. “Our image of Australia as a refugee friendly country has not changed. Knowing the terror that Hazaras face in Afghanistan, we are just thankful to be alive. That is also why, despite these new rules, people still make the journey to Australia… Like us, they have no choice.”
Published in Vibewire, 27 July 2013.