Dangerous days, for refugees and the government

August 17, 2012

Labor is desperately hoping the boats will now stop and the issue will lose its potency.

IT WAS an extraordinary throwback to the Tampa affair. In the week Julia Gillard announced that asylum seekers will be processed on Nauru, the captain of merchant vessel Parsifal was persuaded by asylum seekers threatening self-harm to take them to Christmas Island.

The Howard government wouldn’t allow the Tampa to land at Christmas Island when, in 2001, Captain Arne Rinnan rescued a boatload of people, some of them ill and others who became aggressive. After he refused the government’s demand that he proceed to Indonesia, the Coalition frantically searched for a way of keeping the asylum seekers off Australian soil. Nauru came to the party. The Pacific Solution was born.

The latest people have been able to land – but under the policy announced on Monday, they too are liable to end up on Nauru.

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Gillard wasn’t anxious to discuss the Parsifal yesterday. She was focused on the legislation, which passed the Senate late last night with bipartisan support, to bring back offshore processing on both Nauru and Manus Island. The opposition leapt on the incident, claiming it could be piracy, saying the asylum seekers should be investigated by police (which they are) and harking back to the 2001 use of the SAS.

The government is desperately hoping that now it has finally got the green light for offshore processing, the boats will slow or stop and the asylum seeker issue will be cleared off the agenda. The opposition, despite backing the legislation, is keen to keep the debate alive. It has prepared its case if the boats keep coming, insisting the government hasn’t done enough – that it should be turning boats back and re-introducing temporary protection visas.

The panel under former defence chief Angus Houston, which reported on Monday, left the government with little choice when it recommended reopening Nauru and Manus Island immediately but delaying the Malaysia solution (the government’s favoured option) because of the need for further negotiations on human rights protections.

Gillard didn’t try to gild the lily about the compromise she was being forced to make, but she did try to argue the time for politicking had passed – a forlorn hope, as the opposition flayed her.

The latest ”Pacific Solution” is as morally challenged as the Howard one. The new version has a particularly tough ”no advantage” provision. Once people are approved as refugees, they will have to wait on Nauru or Manus for the equivalent period they’d have waited if they had followed regular channels rather than getting on a boat. That could be several years.

Imagine the frustration of being found to be a genuine refugee, but then having to sit out years on Nauru. We know from the earlier Pacific Solution of the mental health strains many suffered. So far, the government has not been able to quantify the waiting period, or periods.

Many people (this writer included) who condemned the earlier Pacific Solution accept the view that offshore processing is now needed to try to stop the people-smuggling trade, which is out of hand and costing too many lives at sea. But there is no getting away from the fact that the Gillard policy has many difficult and confronting aspects.

There are two challenges ahead for the government: to put in place as humane a regime as is possible while maintaining its strong deterrence, and to get the message across to asylum seekers that ”you’ve got to believe us this time – don’t come”.

Some in Labor’s own ranks, especially the Left, as well as refugee advocacy groups are very unhappy about the policy. If reports emerge of bad conditions in the centres, of mental breakdown or worse, their concerns will intensify. The Howard government was dogged by such stories.

There is a danger that, in the rush to get the offshore processing started, corners will be cut; the deeper problems will come as time passes and some refugees despair. If refugees are going to be kept for a long time, it will be vital to have available adequate counselling services, educational opportunities, training and other meaningful activities.

One reason the government is in a rush – defence personnel were dispatched ahead of the legislation’s passage – is that it doesn’t want the asylum seekers to think that maybe all this won’t happen. No wonder the military this weekend will be making deterrence videos of both places for showing in the region.

After all, there was that unfortunate course of events over the Malaysia people swap. The government initially got an ”announcement” effect – a slowing of arrivals. But then (because of the High Court decision) the people swap fell through. There is always a risk that the people smugglers can – until there is hard evidence to the contrary – convince potential customers that Australia might be a soft touch.

Labor has paid a high price for trying to do the right thing by asylum seekers with its initial liberal policy. After the trade restarted, it has had to sacrifice its principles, and has lost out badly in the politics. Its ability to claw back some ground on the issue before the election will depend on one thing – whether the Pacific Solution Mark II works as effectively in curbing the trade as Mark I did after Tampa.

Michelle Grattan is The Age’s political editor.

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Filed under Asylum Policy, Human Rights and Refugee Activists, Public Reaction/Perception Towards Asylum Seekers

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