Yesterday, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that Australia and Papua New Guinea had entered into a Regional Refugee Agreement, to address the issue of boat-borne asylum seekers.
In a joint media conference, Rudd spelled out the plan. Asylum boats will be intercepted as usual, taken to Christmas Island for preliminary processing (medical and security checks), then moved to the Manus Island detention facility for refugee assessment under UN protocols and supervision. Those deemed to be genuine refugees under the UN convention will either be settled in PNG, or in a third country. Those who do not meet the refugee criteria will be deported to their home countries or – if that was not possible – to another country. No refugee processed on Manus would be resettled in Australia.
In return, Australia will increase its humanitarian intake, upgrade and expand the Manus detention centre, and significantly invest in PNG infrastructure. There is no cap on the number of asylum seekers who may be processed through Manus.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that media – mainstream, independent and social – figuratively exploded as this announcement rolled out. The overwhelming reaction was negative. People swore that the ALP had forever lost their vote, that Rudd was showing his racist colours, that he was just using the plight of people to win an election. It was, in short, hysterical.
Over the years, I’ve condemned hardline policies relating to asylum seeker issues, regardless of their origin. At its base, this is a human issue. Not a political one. There are human beings involved, who are fleeing for their lives and seeking a safe haven. There is nothing dangerous about that – those who bleat about ‘border security’ and ‘protection’ deliberately play on fears and insecurities that have nothing to do with the people who become victims all over again just for wanting safety for themselves and their families.
But – and here’s the thing – there is an issue here. Not that there are hordes arriving on our shores to take our jobs and threaten our wimmins, all while turning us into Muslims with their sneaky ways (thank you, Senator Bernardi). The issue is that, no matter what, people are still putting themselves in the hands of criminals who have no interest in preserving life once money has changed hands. And people are dying at sea. Nothing – nothing – has changed that; not relaxing entry requirements, threatening to send people to Malaysia, or actually sending them to Nauru.
So, with that in mind, I took a look at this arrangement between Australian and Papua New Guinea.
Before moving on to discuss the Agreement in detail, let’s start with what it doesn’t mean.
1. Australia has not ‘slammed the door on refugees’, despite the incendiary headlines of today’s Age.
The RRA does not apply to those who are deemed refugees using normal channels, only those who arrive by boat (or who are intercepted on their way here). We still have a humanitarian intake and resettlement, which was increased last year by 6000, with further increases flagged over time.
That this is painfully obvious, and yet apparently ignored by those reporting the story in the media, smacks of nothing more than scare-mongering for the purposes of ratings and profit. It’s completely irresponsible to suggest that this RRA would let to Australia refusing any refugees.
2. The RRA is not a reinstatement of the infamous ‘White Australia’ policy.
Where do I start, with this one? It’s so ridiculous it shouldn’t have to be addressed – yet social media is full of cries to the effect that the RRA constitutes racial profiling, as part of an official policy to deny ‘brown-skinned’ people a place in Australian society. This is nothing more than an assertion – there isn’t a shred of evidence to back it up. In fact, there is good evidence to suggest otherwise.
Under the White Australia policy, would-be immigrants (note: not refugees) who did not conform to a certain ‘Britishness’ (or, at least, northern European Anglophones), were either denied entry altogether, or required to pass prohibitively difficult tests. Some of these tests were deliberately administered in a language unknown to the person seeking entry, virtually guaranteeing that they would fail. The choice of language for these tests was at the discretion of the administering officer.
The abolition of this policy, over time and by both Left and Right leaning governments, is one of Australia’s great achievements. That is absolutely undeniable. But to suggest that the RRA with Papua New Guinea seeks to reinstate it ignores – wilfully ignores – a number of facts.
As mentioned above, we still have a humanitarian refugee intake. Refugees are not immigrants in the usual sense. They are people fleeing unbearable conditions in their own countries, seeking resettlement elsewhere. Determination of refugee status is made according to certain conventions set down by the UN and agreed to by signatories.
Additionally – and surely this should not have to be pointed out – the overwhelming majority of people granted refugee status are not ‘white’ in any sense of the word. Refugees resettled here tend to be Iraqi, Afghani, Somali, or Tamil – and will likely continue to be, until conditions in their home countries change drastically. They are not about to be denied refugee status on the basis of their ethnicity.
3. The RRA is not purely an ‘election quick-fix’ (The Age editorial notwithstanding).
Now, there’s no doubt that this arrangement with Papua New Guinea cuts the legs out from under the Coalition’s stated intentions towards asylum seekers. It is likely to provide some deterrent for those who might otherwise fall prey to people smugglers’ assurances of resettlement and citizenship. (And the Department of Immigration and Citizenship has wasted no time in spreading that message far and wide, with posters popping up all over asylum seeker support pages on Facebook.) It has the advantage of being a signed agreement, rather than a simple, unilateral announcement – and there is detail available, which is more than could be said for former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s ‘Malaysian Solution’.
That said, all those potential election benefits also have substantial effects. This is not merely a case of trading slogans. It’s arguable that the government is participating in a race to the bottom, but this is nothing new where asylum seekers are concerned. They have been pawns for years now, for all sides of politics. The real issue is policy itself.
So, if the RRA is neither a slammed door nor a new White Australia policy, what is it?
Our Navy and Coast Guard will still patrol for boats, and still escort them to Christmas Island. Asylum seekers who have come by boat will still be held in offshore detention, pending processing. Refugees will be resettled. The difference? Where those refugees – and only those refugees – will end up.
There are, however, real concerns with this agreement.
First, it begs the question of why we need offshore detention in the first place. So-called ‘pull factors’ have never been properly demonstrated. Despite the Coalition’s oft-repeated assertions, there is no proof that the Pacific Solution ‘stopped’ anything. There was a drop in boat arrivals, but in the global context, that is more likely attributable to the situation in home and transit countries. The difference between the Pacific Solution and the RRA is that it absolutely rules out resettlement in Australia. If boats drop in number once the RRA is in place, that may show that having Australia as a destination is, indeed a pull factor.
Second, the state of the Manus detention facility. To put it bluntly, it’s a dump. The housing is temporary, there are pools of stagnant water all over the camp (creating a malaria risk), and as late as July 12 this year, the UNHCR stated that the centre did not meet international standards.
Australia has pledged to spend whatever is necessary to make the permanent facility both up to standard, and able to handle up to 6000 people. And this brings us back to the earlier problem; if we’re prepared to spend that much money (and invest in PNG’s infrastructure) to keep people out of the country, why not spend money to refurbish, expand or even build new centres on the mainland? (Leaving aside, of course, the utterly insupportable decision to excise the mainland from our Migration Zone.)
Rudd’s answer is likely to be that this is a regional issue, deserving of a regional solution. That’s true enough – but is this the best we can do? The government proposes that Australia play the dual roles of bank and conference organiser. Both are undeniably important, but should we be expecting PNG – a country which we will have to prop up financially – to do most of the work for us?
The RRA may well stop boats leaving Indonesia – or, at least, preserve a status quo when it comes to our Navy and Coast Guard. Certainly, it’s nullified the issue where the Coalition is concerned – and the Greens, for all their passion, still have little detail to support them beyond assertions that we should expand our humanitarian refugee intake and restore the family reunion program. Politically, it’s a win. For all the rhetoric, Labor are unlikely to lose many votes with this agreement.
Morally, though? There are real questions that need to be answered, not least of which is: at what point did we decide we would no longer even consider processing boat-borne refugees – any refugees – on our own land?
That’s what is important here. Not hysteria, not deliberately misleading headlines, not hodge-podge rallies responding with the speed of a knee-jerk to a few bullet points.
Asking the right questions. Calmly, implacably, and constantly.