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We Are Witnessing The Unravelling Of The Cruel Offshore Detention System

But there is still a way to go.

28/11/2016 10:43 AM AEDT | Updated 28/11/2016 10:43 AM AEDT
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Asylum-seekers look through a fence at the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea March 21, 2014.

Malcom Turnbull recently revealed that the Government had made a deal with the US whereby people assessed as refugees on Manus Island and Nauru may be given the opportunity to be resettled in the US, and Australia will settle some Central American refugees currently living in camps in Costa Rica.

This announcement shows a significant concession and perhaps a loss of face by the Australian government. In September this year, Save the Children commissioned a poll which found that 66 percent of respondents wanted Turnbull to find settlement for refugees on Manus and Nauru by the end of the year; this represents a rapid shift in public sentiment.

In light of this, refugee advocates should have some hope, albeit with reservation, that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Together we should use this announcement to buoy our commitment and redouble our efforts to obtain justice for refugees and to close offshore detention permanently.

If the Turnbull Government thinks this deal is an appropriate outcome for the years of suffering they have forced upon people fleeing persecution, or that it will assuage those seeking justice for refugees, it could not be further mistaken.

The Government's proposed solution to settling those assessed as refugees detained on Nauru and Manus Island suffers from a number of flaws and uncertainties, such as:

  • It is a one-off deal that does not provide for asylum seekers who may be illegally detained by the Australian government in future;
  • The Nauru detention centre will remain open;
  • Manus will (apparently) close in 2019 instead of immediately;
  • Some of the people illegally detained may not want to go to the US and may have family in Australia;
  • There remains uncertainty surrounding whether a Trump administration will honour the deal; and
  • This deal in no way addresses the injustices committed on Nauru and Manus by the Australian government over the past three and a half years.

History has shown that while events in social movements may not be paid the significance that they deserve at the time, retrospection illuminates the importance that symbolic wins can have in shifting public opinion and fostering the political and social landscape necessary for more radical change.

Without the benefit of hindsight, activists may not see the value of wins that provide few material outcomes, yet arise from shifting public perspectives.

In their new book This is an Uprising, Mark Englar and Paul Englar examine the mechanisms of civil resistance movements. Through numerous case studies the authors provide an account of the drivers of effective social movements. They suggest that effective movements employ a diversity of tactics and rely on both short term 'whirlwind' moments and longer term structural organisation.

Within this perspective, short-term symbolic actions can lead to wins that, whilst seemingly changing little, provide impetus for more dramatic ongoing transformations in society. According to Englar and Englar, the Salt March led by Gandhi in 1930 and the protests in Birmingham orchestrated by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1963 led to settlements with authorities that had little instrumental value.

In India, in exchange for the cessation of civil disobedience, protesters being held in jail were released, and fines for tax avoidance and confiscated property (that had not already been sold) were to be returned. However, discussion surrounding questions of independence would be deferred, there would be no investigation in to the actions of police during the protests, and the Salt Act itself would remain law. These shortcomings led many to assert that the campaign had failed to meet its objectives.

Similarly, in Birmingham, the concessions gained by Martin Luther King and the SCLC after months of protest did not amount to their aim of citywide desegregation. Public facilities would remain segregated, 'whites only' signs were to be removed from toilets and drinking fountains but with questions surrounding enforcement, and whilst storeowners agreed to hire at least one black employee, some interpreted this as one black employee hired in stores across the entire city.

The events in India and Birmingham, whilst failing to produce widespread transformational changes immediately, proved to be significant symbolic victories. The Salt March and the Birmingham campaign highlighted that change was possible, and that draconian authorities could be brought into discussions and deal making. Moreover, these victories were perhaps essential in fostering the political landscape required for the transformational change that would occur in the years ahead.

There is some parallel in the analysis provided by Englar and Englar with the current dissent surrounding offshore detention and the treatment of asylum seekers by the Australian government. To those that are outraged by what they see as a token olive branch or a move to silence opposition to Australia's asylum seeker policy -- have hope; and to those that see this deal as a good outcome for people seeking asylum -- do not be fooled or complacent.

We are witnessing the unraveling of the cruel offshore detention system, but it will require a little more pulling.

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