July 19, 2013
Greens leader condemns Kevin Rudd’s refugee deal with Papua New Guinea as ‘ruthless and repugnant’
“This is Australia’s day of shame when it comes to the treatment of refugees,” said the Greens leader, Christine Milne, just minutes after Kevin Rudd announced one of the most audacious and controversial immigration policies in Australia’s history.
Milne looked visibly moved as she continued: “The agreement that the prime minister has signed with the prime minister of PNG is ruthless and repugnant. It is in complete contravention with our moral obligations under the refugee convention.”
Milne’s words are likely to have chimed with many on the left in Australia. Rumours about Rudd’s announcement on how he planned to deal with the asylum “problem” that has so plagued his party, and will be a defining debate at the forthcoming federal election, had circulated for days. But very few had expected him to go this far.
Rudd had infamously told the nation that his predecessor, Julia Gillard, would take a lurch to the right on asylum policy, but on Friday critics of the deal with PNG accused the prime minister of leapfrogging even the rightwing opposition.
Speaking to Guardian Australia, the former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser said: “Protection of human rights under the Labor party are no better than protection of human rights under the Liberal party.
“As part of a general race to the bottom of the barrel to find the deterrent to stop people coming to Australia, this time it’s threatening people with settlement in Papua New Guinea. This is offloading Australia’s own responsibility to a third-world country.
“It has always been in the power of the government to stop boats coming from Indonesia, if the government had been prepared to take significant numbers of refugees processed in Indonesia and bring them directly to Australia.”
He concluded: “I don’t support Australia bypassing its own responsibilities under the refugee convention. If people coming by boats were white farmers from Zimbabwe there’d be no fuss would there? That says it all.”
Argument about the legality of Rudd’s policy, which will see all those arriving by boat to seek asylum in Australia moved offshore to Papua New Guinea, has raged. The prime minister maintained the policy was not in breach of the UN refugee convention. He told reporters that he had spoken personally to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, earlier in the day and added: “The convention requires us not to send genuine refugees back to the countries they have fled from, and in this arrangement we honour that undertaking.”
He said: “The convention requires us to provide proper humane treatment of people; under this arrangement we will do so.”
But many disagree. David Manne, the noted Australian immigration lawyer, drew attention to PNG’s atrocious record on human rights. Manne brought the successful high court claim to halt another controversial ALP policy on asylum, the Malaysia solution (essentially a people-swap agreement that would have allowed Australia to send 800 boat arrivals to Malaysia in exchange for 4,000 people certified as refugees).
“The independent evidence points to PNG being, sadly, very unsafe and also a place where there is widespread and pervasive violence, including against women, and serious and ongoing daily human rights abuse throughout the country,” he said.
A UNHCR report on the state of immigration detention on Manus Island, the offshore processing centre to which hundreds of boat arrivals to Australia have already been transferred, derided facilities and processing times as breaching international human rights standards.
All children and families seeking asylum have recently been removed from the island. This had been seen by refugee advocates as movement to a more humane offshore processing policy. But that interpretation has now been shattered. The facilities at Manus are likely to be expanded and it is reported they will include facilities for children.
Sophie Peer, campaign director for ChilOut, a refugee advocacy group that works on behalf of asylum seeker children was baffled by the apparent reversal.
“An expansion of the Manus Island detention facility will just cause more of the same harm we know comes from remote, long-term detention,” she said. “Vulnerable people have already been moved off the island. Malaria is rife: children under seven and pregnant women cannot be sent there because of malarial issues. Where will these people go? Will families be separated?”
The announcement left the opposition, who have long called for a policy of turning back asylum seeker boats in a bid to stem the numbers of maritime arrivals, in a difficult position. Tony Abbott said he was “full of gratitude” to the PNG government, before adding: “It won’t work under Mr Rudd. Who do you trust on this subject? Who do you trust to stop the boats?”
His shadow immigration minister, Scott Morrison, asked how much it was all going to cost, and when the plans would be realised and implementable.
Others accused Rudd of doing whatever it took to win at the next election.
“It is an attempt at a quick election fix and will likely stall before it can be implemented. But the Labor leader who formerly said he would not move to the right on refugees has channelled the very worst of John Howard’s anti-refugee policy,” said refugee advocate Ian Rintoul, from the Refugee Action Coalition.