Manus and Nauru - the US solution?

The lead up to Christmas 2016

In October 2016, Prime Minister Turnbull and Immigration Minister Dutton, announced legislation to be tabled on 7 November 2016 that no one who came to Australia by boat after 19 July 2013 will ever be able to come to Australia on any type of visa – student, spouse, business, tourism or family reunion. 

This announcement strengthened the Government’s resolve against the transferees on Manus Island, PNG and Nauru.  The community reacted by joining the #Lovemakesaway movement and other refugee advocates and contacting their local politician by phone to express their dismay at the proposed legislation.  GetUp recommended contacting local Labor Senators asking them to oppose the legislation.  There were peaceful street protests in Melbourne and Sydney over the weekend following the announcement that went largely unreported in the press.  Further protests continued in Canberra.

The proposal was received positively by One Nation with Pauline Hanson tweeting: “Good to see that it looks like the government is now taking its cues from One Nation. Just like last time.”

It has been suggested that the proposed legislation is illegal and unconstitutional as well as contravening Article 31 of the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees.  The Government asserts that the proposed legislation is legal and comes on the eve of a resolution of third country resettlement for the transferees.

Detail, from the Government, was scant in the public domain.  The opposition leader, Mr Bill Shorten, committed the Labor Party to opposing the legislation.  The changes to the Migration Act passed in the lower house but were not tabled in the Senate before Parliament recessed for Christmas. 

As 2016 drew to a close, announcements of ‘deals’ with the USA (announced Sunday 13 November 2016) to resettle some of the transferees from Manus Island, PNG and Nauru in America come with little detail and assurances.  It is clear that not all of the people transferred to PNG and Nauru will be resettled under this deal.  The deal is overshadowed by the election results in the USA.

The outcome of the election in USA has emboldened nationalistic individuals worldwide to advocate against generosity towards refugees anywhere.  In Germany, where so many people have been welcomed, voices rise against supporting refugees and are holding up Australia’s methods as the answer, sparking fear in the minds of refugees.  As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia’s message is heard loud and clear “All the people that try to go to Australia have to be on small islands… Unhuman things happen to these people.” (Basel Mutlark, Syrian refugee in Germany)  “They are terrified that an Australian-style immigration solution will permanently separate them from their loved ones planning to come to Germany, particularly those still trapped by war in Syria and Iraq.”

If Australia’s message to the world has been so clearly heard – what is the point of continuing the torture of the people transferred to PNG and Nauru?  

Time will tell the end to this horror story.  At the moment, hope is in short supply.  It is clear that the cruel and torturous conditions for the transferees in limbo will continue for some time and the likely resolution, when it comes, will not be positive.

The situation post US election (December 2016 – February 2017)

For the men, women and children transferred to PNG and Nauru, nothing has changed.  There was hope that the deal with the USA would mean an end to the dire conditions.  However, the policies and attitude of President Trump and his administration make it unlikely.

The systemic neglect of transferees, regardless of their refugee status, continues and was highlighted by the death in December of Faysal Ishak Ahmed, who had been in Manus since October 2013.  Ahmed had been unwell for some time and the eleventh-hour medivac to Brisbane following his collapse came too late.  The same situation is playing out on Nauru with the refugee ‘Yusuf’ who was still waiting for the medivac promised in November 2016 for his heart condition. 

The fate of a pregnant refugee in Nauru hung in the balance in January 2017.  In a situation where Nauruans would be airlifted to Australia to avail themselves of health care, not available on Nauru, the refugee was initially refused medical evacuation by the Department of Immigration despite considerable medical advice to the contrary. She was eventually brought to Australia on 3 February 2017.

In an atmosphere of continued Australian bipartisan hard line approach to the transferees on Manus Island, PNG and Nauru, their treatment has become world news.  Australia was relying on President Trump and the USA to resettle the transferees.  However, the Trump administration’s ‘extreme vetting’ policy coupled with the travel ban on refugees and people from seven Muslim majority countries entering the USA has left serious doubt over the success of the ‘deal’.  While Prime Minister Turnbull has expressed confidence in President Trump’s assurances, February brought the first concrete reaction by the Trump administration to the ‘Refugee deal’ in the form of a tweet: 

Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!”

Pundits have varying opinions over whether the ‘deal’ will go ahead.  It has been suggested that the USA could honour the agreement and not bring a single person from Nauru and Manus Island, PNG to USA.

The fate of the people transferred to Manus Island, PNG and Nauru remains uncertain.  This is underlined by the report from the Australian Parliamentary Library on Coalition and Labor asylum policy since 2001.  There is little difference between the parties.  They are in unison on people seeking asylum and arriving by boat.  The report references the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers of 2012 and points out that the short-term deterrence proposals (in the form of off shore processing) are ongoing and the other short term incentives and long term proposals have either not been pursued or have lost momentum and are yet to be implemented.  The Expert Panel was clear on Australia’s obligations where people seeking asylum is concerned.  These obligations have not been met for the people transferred to Manus Island, PNG and Nauru.

While there is much work to be done but the first step is clear.  Australia must take responsibility for the people who sought asylum in Australia and bring them to safety.

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