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Cast adrift: Australia risks its international standing over asylum-seeker policies

Only Australia uses less-developed countries to process refugee claims. AAP/Eoin Blackwell

Cast adrift: Australia risks its international standing over asylum-seeker policies

The “Nauru files”, which detail reports of abuse in Australia’s asylum-seeker detention centre on Nauru, have received global attention since their release. They should provide a flashpoint for the Turnbull government to reassess the longstanding policy of offshore detention of asylum seekers before more serious harm is inflicted both on those detained and on Australia’s international standing.

With international summits to be hosted by the United Nations and US President Barack Obama in September aimed at tackling the global refugee crisis, the spotlight will be firmly on Australia’s record – and how we can do better.

How did we get here?

The way Australia conceives of its asylum policies and how they violate our international legal obligations has no parallel elsewhere. No other country uses less-developed countries to process refugee claims.

Many countries provide protection to a vastly higher number of refugees than Australia does. According to the Refugee Council of Australia, of the 2.45 million refugees recognised and resettled in 2015, Australia reportedly assisted just 11,776. This ranked us 47th in the world relative to GDP.

Yet such facts don’t seem to scratch the veneer of a policy dialogue that considers refugees a threat to national security. Or claims that we are actually turning boats back out of compassion, to save lives. Or that ignores the fundamental principle that a person’s right to seek asylum has nothing to do with how they flee – by land, air or sea.

The writing was on the wall, even before the Tampa incident in 2001, that Australia was moving away from international best-practice in its treatment of asylum seekers, and to a more isolationist policy agenda. The trajectory of our policy since then has been well-documented.

But with the Nauru files having exposed what goes on in offshore detention centres, will Australians no longer stand for such a brutal policy? How will we deal with this horrific reality now that we definitively can’t claim ignorance of it?

Fatigue at fighting the double-think

The frame of reference for the asylum policy debate is now so skewed that even Australia’s best journalists are unable to ask the fundamental questions of our leaders. These could include:

  • Why is Australia committed to offshore detention?

  • Why mandatory detention at all?

  • How can the government discriminate against genuine refugees based on how they arrived?

  • Why is the government still talking about resettlement to third countries when it is our shared responsibility to protect people fleeing persecution?

With both major parties pandering to real or imagined fear of voters in the electorate rather than appealing to their humanity and innate decency, there seems to be a lack of interest in the mainstream media in playing the role of fact-checkers or educators.

Australians don’t seem to realise how far off the scale of acceptable state practice we really are, or how barbaric our policies have become. Perhaps until now.

Not hearing international condemnation

Since the Howard era, Australia has been largely impervious to the criticism of both the domestic and the international community on its asylum policy. Independent reports are discredited or ignored.

But now, the Turnbull government should take stock of how broad and constant that criticism has been.

The High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in its 2013 report and several public statements since, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights as recently as a few days ago, the Human Rights Council through the Universal Periodic Review last year, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, and the Committee against Torture are but a few of the UN bodies that have come down hard on Australia’s asylum policies.

Long before the Nauru Files leak, the UNHCR report said people on Nauru and Manus Island are:

… living in arbitrary detention in conditions that do not meet international standards … [the current policies] do not provide a fair and efficient system for assessing refugee claims, do not provide safe and humane conditions of treatment in detention and do not provide for adequate and timely solutions for refugees.

We have now heard the same thing in graphic detail from staff working in the centres. So when is enough enough?

Why Australia should care

Much of the media’s concern about how the Nauru Files will play out seems focused on the negative reactions of our friends in the UK and New Zealand. But the problem is a little bigger than that.

Australia’s asylum-seeker policy is at odds with this government’s foreign policy goals. One of its key priorities is to secure a seat on the UN Human Rights Council from 2018 to 2020, based on the claim that Australia is an:

… international human rights leader … especially in the context of advancing human rights in the Indo-Pacific region.

There is no doubt that our asylum-seeker policy, and how we handle the Nauru Files, will have an impact on this objective.

Australia’s asylum policies will be under scrutiny at the UN in September. AAP/UN

In response to the global refugee crisis, the largest since the second world war, the rest of the world is busy preparing for two summits to seek better ways to co-operate and share the burden to protect those fleeing conflict and persecution. The summits follow a report in May 2016 by the UN Secretary-General.

The Australian government must consider how it will represent its current position, and what it has to offer, should it choose to participate in the UN summit – where its record will be on display.

In relation to Obama’s summit, the government knows full well from the 2015 peacekeeping summit that only those countries with firm and genuine new commitments will be invited to participate. In this summit the US is seeking commitments from other governments to increase funding, raise quotas, and support greater self-reliance and inclusion for refugees.

What can Australia offer for a seat at the table? Save The Children Australia CEO Paul Ronalds has said:

Failure to take meaningful action will confirm Australia’s international ignominy concerning the compassion for people fleeing war and persecution.

History may eventually show the Nauru files to be a crucial turning point for Australia’s asylum-seeker policy and our international standing. But what remains unclear is whether the re-elected but fragile Turnbull government is able break the back of the intractable bipartisan line of “keeping them out”, and how Australians will hold both sides of politics to account for where we go next.

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