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We Claim To Be Worried About Refugees Drowning At Sea Only To Punish Them On Land

The closure of the Manus Island 'Regional Processing Centre' should be cause for celebration. But it's not.

02/11/2017 8:42 AM AEDT | Updated 02/11/2017 8:42 AM AEDT
David Gray / Reuters
"The use of Manus (and Nauru) to warehouse people seeking asylum is just another low point in Australia's tarnished human rights record."

The closure of the Manus Island 'Regional Processing Centre' should be cause for celebration. But it's not.

It ran as a detention centre until the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled in April 2016 that detention of the asylum seekers was unconstitutional. It said:

Both the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments shall forthwith take all steps necessary to cease and prevent the continued unconstitutional and illegal detention of the asylum seekers or transferees at the relocation centre on Manus Island and the continued breach of the asylum seekers or transferees constitutional and human rights.

It is important to note that the Court did not order that the Processing Centre should be closed; it ruled that detention was illegal. That is because PNG's constitution has a guarantee of personal freedom, and asylum seekers do not break any law by seeking asylum.

The use of Manus (and Nauru) to warehouse people seeking asylum is just another low point in Australia's tarnished human rights record. The Australian government has tried to justify its harsh policy by lies and hypocrisy.

From 2001 (when the Howard government established the 'Pacific solution') to the present, the Coalition has referred to boat people as 'illegal' and has spoken of them as entering Australia 'illegally'. The clear inference is that they have committed an offence.

It is a lie. It calls the whole exercise 'border protection' to give the impression that refugees are people we need to be protected from. That's another lie.

And it claims that all of this horror is needed because they are worried about people drowning in their attempt to reach safety. That explanation, if genuine, would be decent. But it is not genuine: their stated concern about people drowning is untrue: they punish the people who do not drown. This is profoundly ironic: almost all boat people who have reached Australia over the past 20 years or so have been assessed as refugees, lawfully entitled to protection. But we abuse them, vilify them and punish them.

Refugees housed in the Processing Centre on Manus were unwilling to leave it because they are afraid of the locals who, by all accounts, resent them. Refugees who have visited other parts of Manus Island have been attacked by locals wielding knives and machetes. At least one refugee has been killed by locals. Australia has now forced the refugees to leave the Processing Centre, despite their clearly expressed fears. It has done this by shutting off the supply of electricity, water and food to the Processing Centre.

Australia used to have a good reputation as a country that valued human rights. Now we have an Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, who disparages support for refugees as "un-Australian".

Australia has a proud record in human rights thinking. An Australian (Doc Evatt) presided over the General Assembly of the UN on 10 December 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. We had played a significant role in drafting it. It includes a provision which recognises the right of every person to seek asylum.

In recent years, we have not honoured that sentiment.

Australia has signed all the great human rights conventions, including the Convention against Torture, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and others. But in 2013, when a UN special rapporteur on torture said that, in the cases of 5 men held on Manus, we were in breach of our obligations under the Convention Against Torture, the then-Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, said that Australians were "sick and tired of being lectured by the UN".

The present government's attitude to refugees on Manus is closer to Tony Abbott's way of thinking than to respect for human rights.

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