Yet again, refugees have become the victims of a political gambit. Back in 2001, the Federal Government’s attack on asylum seekers was designed to shore up a failing election campaign. This time it is about appeasing Indonesia’s fury over the granting of asylum to 42 people who fled the Indonesian province of Papua in January.
And again, it seems largely to have worked. A few weeks ago, after intense pressure from Jakarta over the West Papuans, Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone announced a tougher stance on “unauthorised boat arrivals” in the form of a revamped Pacific solution: the widely criticised policy that saw asylum seekers diverted to offshore detention facilities while their claims are processed. Indonesia is pleased - after the country’s Foreign Minister, Hassan Wirajuda, announced the diplomatic issue to be “solved”, it has decided to return its ambassador to Canberra.
Pacific solution Mark II goes one better than its predecessor, proposing that even those who actually make it to the mainland (rather than just boats intercepted en route) should be carted off to Christmas Island, Nauru or Manus Island for processing. As some commentators have noted, this, more or less, amounts to the excision of the entire continent from the Australian Migration Zone, rather than just a few islands.
And the upshot is that, again, children will find themselves in (overnight) detention, that people will be forced to endure lengthy and traumatising confinement in remote camps, and crucially, that the entire process will play out beyond the reach of the Australian courts and public scrutiny.
But the new proposal goes further still. Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone has indicated that even if arrivals are found to be genuine refugees, the government will do everything it can to fob them off to a “third country”, taking them on only as a last resort. The goal has clearly been to discourage more West Papuans from fleeing to Australia and to salve tensions with Jakarta, but its impact will be felt by refugees from all countries. It seems the government is set on making Australia disappear, at least as far as its international refugee obligations go.
We have taken one step forward only to go two steps back. Any progress that has been made toward humanising our treatment of asylum seekers, thanks to the protest led by rebel backbenchers last year, will have been for nothing.
The sad fact is asylum seekers can all too easily be made pawns in the dirty games of domestic or foreign politics. They have no powerful lobby groups, they don’t vote in this country (unless they achieve citizenship), they have few resources and little political leverage. And when the appeals of a handful of desperate people are weighed up against, say, the burgeoning wrath of a populous and volatile northern neighbour, it is not hard to see why they come out on bottom.
But their powerlessness should not be an excuse to ignore them - it should in fact be the opposite. Just like it has obligations to its citizens, Australia, as a member of the international community, has obligations to offer safe haven and decent treatment to people of other nations who come to us with a legitimate request for protection. These commitments are covered by international human rights law and the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. They are also embedded in the foundations of any country that claims to be heir to enlightened democratic traditions.
While Indonesia has begun to make tentative steps towards becoming a more open and democratic society, in West Papua it still behaves like the worst kind of colonial government, with rigged elections, population displacement, murder, torture and intimidation staining its 37-year rule. Thousands of people involved in the West Papuan independence movement live in fear of retribution from the TNI (Indonesian army) and its agents.
These facts have been increasingly acknowledged by the international community, and - if we take the granting of asylum to 42 West Papuan asylum seekers in March as evidence - even by the Australian Government itself. Yet not only are we deliberately creating punitive policies to deter potential asylum seekers from the province, we are even planning to help Indonesia patrol its own waters, presumably in order to turn back any other West Papuans trying to escape a place we have implicitly admitted to be a human rights desert - despite the fact that this would undoubtedly place lives at risk. It amounts to chucking in our commitment to human rights for the sake of a short-term patch job on our relationship with Indonesia.
In the 1970s, after Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, Australia opted for “regional stability” over decency by publicly recognising the occupation - to our lasting shame. We have since set ourselves up as a sort of benchmark of good governance in the region with our interventions in places like the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. But how can we hope to have any real credibility when we show ourselves ready to throw our moral commitments out the window at the first sign of protest?
We can only hope backbench and minor party sceptics - Joyce, Georgiou, Family First Senator Steve Fielding and others, who have expressed their doubts about the new legislation - will be able to prevent this latest piece of cowardly machiavellianism from seeing the light of day. Without their advocates, asylum seekers are all too easily ignored or made to serve the political expediencies of the moment. It is unfortunate that so few of those in power are willing to stand up for them.