David Purnell, Canberra Regional Meeting and Quaker Peace and Legislation Committee

Recently Sister Jane Keogh, who has been very engaged by the trauma of those held at Manus Island Detention centre for years, expressed a sense of ‘fatigue’ caused by the bad news and suffering witnessed on a daily basis. She called on us to work harder in the time before the next Federal Election to change the policy – “to save many lives, and restore some semblance of humanity in our country”. She and others have compiled a booklet of personal stories of real people and real situations to help educate Australians and put pressure on politicians to respond. Their slogan is STOP THE VOTES for deliberate cruelty. Despite both Labor and the Coalition being cruel in their approach, Labor does have better policies around permanent visas and citizenship for the 30,000 already in Australia.

Jane Keogh reminds us that Australia is suffering a crisis in humanity. Manus and Nauru are both in crisis:

  • Thousands in Australia thrown out into the streets with no support
  • Families are being split as a matter of policy
  • Large numbers are being deported to where they cannot survive
  • 14 children on Nauru have made serious attempts at suicide and we had to fight our government in the courts one by one to get them help.
  • The families living in mouldy tents on Nauru are being temporarily moved while the international forum is on so their situation cannot be witnessed.
  •  The numbers of refugees in PNG who have already lost their minds is very high and violence is rife. They are driven mad, denied help, then blamed for their symptoms.
  • Medical help is being denied to many seriously ill with such things as broken bones, kidney stones, loss of sight, ulcers, cancer, and heart conditions, on Nauru and Manus
  • Pain medication needed by the Manus men is not available
  • Levels of depression are worse than ever before even among the most healthy
  • The US deal will take many years as only 105 have left from PNG in over a year. Many nationalities have been excluded and many will not survive the wait.

Anyone who wants further details about Jane Keogh’s project can email her at  janeikeogh@gmail.com.

Thomas Albrecht, the UNHCR Regional Representative based in Canberra, gave a major speech at ANU on 24 July 2018 on Australia’s role in the international refugee protection system. He made the following points:

  • Australia has had a remarkable role over many decades, drawing on the fundamental values and principle of protecting human beings who have had to flee their homes because of fear of persecution owing to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.
  • After playing a leadership role in establishing the 1951 Refugee Convention, Australia accepted many displaced people in the post-WW2 period – about a million. Its resettlement programs are excellent.
  • The recent decision to raise the humanitarian intake to 18,750 for 2018-19 is welcome in the context of refugee needs worldwide. It follows a period since 2013 when the intake was lower.
  • The emergence of greater focus on border control, while understandable, puts at risk the importance of protection for those seeking asylum. We cannot expect refugees to stop taking risks of using smugglers and traffickers if we do not provide safer ways.
  • The key question for Australia is – how can Australia fairly and compassionately address the challenges and implications of a truly global displacement system? The use of ‘off-shore’ processing falls well short of an adequate response, and has caused for many in Nauru and Manus greater suffering than their earlier trauma in the place they left.
  • Efforts to enhance comprehensive regional approaches, based on sharing responsibility, are most significant. The Bali Process, with 48 members including UNHCR, is a good example. Australia has given its support to the protection language used in the Bali 2016 Declaration, and needs to follow up with policies that reflect those sentiments. The current ‘operation sovereign borders’ leads to turning back a much higher proportion of asylum seekers than ever before., creating a greater risk that more people will face danger or persecution when returned.
  • The people on Manus Island in particular have been given minimal information about their situation, and have been denied health and welfare facilities. In Nauru the situation is exacerbated by the significant numbers of women and children involved. Regardless of claims that these people are now the responsibility of the PNG and Nauruan governments, legally they remain the responsibility of Australia until they are adequately housed and settled. Even within Australia itself there are serious concerns about the withdrawal of services for the 30,000 refugees and asylum seekers held in limbo about their status.
  • People seeking asylum should be detained for the minimum period needed for health, identity and security checks, and subject to judicial safeguards. Fast-track processing that bypasses proper legal processes should not continue. Those found to be refugees should be given permanent not temporary status, and enabled to be reunited with family.
  • It is encouraging that more Australians now see that “the end does not justify the means” and are calling for changes in policy and practice.

Australian Friends have supported many public expressions of outrage and concern about how the current policies have been contrary to the ideals and expectations of most Australians. It is now time for us to renew our efforts to make sure that the next election delivers a government that is committed to significant change in refugee/asylum seeker policies.

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