22 November 2012

The government should heed Amnesty's concerns

Such was the title of the editorial in today’s edition of The Age, under the main heading Labor's head in the sand on Pacific detention.

It is a first class piece, so here it is in full:

The government should heed Amnesty's concerns

LABOR has done what it condemned from the Coalition and shoved asylum seekers arriving in Australia off to Nauru and Manus Island, and still the boats come. In its bid to toughen the deterrent, the Gillard government has refused to explain the length of time required under its supposed ''no advantage'' test to process people's refugee claims, and still the boats come. Labor plans to wave a legislative wand and remove the mainland of Australia from the migration zone, and still the boats come.

Two more vessels arrived on Tuesday night - one at Christmas Island, the other at Cocos Island, with 82 and 55 passengers respectively. A few hours later, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen sought to toughen even further the punitive measures taken against asylum seekers. With the eventual planned capacity for Nauru and Manus Island of 2100 detainees already overtaken by the almost 8000 people who have arrived since August 13, when offshore processing was again embraced, Labor has now brought its Pacific solution onshore. People who have their claims tested in Australia and are found to be refugees will be denied a protection visa for what Mr Bowen calls a ''substantial'' period of time. For how long, he is unwilling - or, more likely, unable - to say, but it could be up to five years.

Decency has been lost in this debate in the face of what remains, by any comparison to the global movement of asylum seekers, a small number of people coming to Australia. Changes to leave asylum seekers to languish on a bridging visa in Australia - unable to work, with little help to find accommodation and a pittance to live on - are only one step short of a return to the temporary protection visas of the Howard era. This ill-conceived policy will have a certain outcome: to create an underclass of migrants, a burden on the already stretched charity of the Australian community.
The government justifies its hardline stance by invoking the moral imperative to stop people drowning. There is no doubting a voyage to Australia is treacherous, but lives at sea are best protected by putting more patrols on the water, not by meting out punishment to people who have already arrived. But the government is loath to take any measure that could be portrayed as welcoming to people fleeing hardship, proving it is actually the political imperative that motivates Labor most.

The electoral cost has indeed been great. The Coalition has been strident in its criticism, stoking fears in the community of overrun borders. Any opposition can be relied upon to magnify a government's perceived failing, but Tony Abbott has repeatedly diminished his own personal standing by stretching facts to make a point. He has claimed, erroneously, that people arriving in Australia without documentation are ''illegal'' arrivals. Mr Abbott has run a strong and long campaign against Prime Minister Julia Gillard as a ''liar'' over her statements on the carbon tax - employing a test that, turned back on Mr Abbott in this instance, leaves him wanting.
But the Coalition is not culpable for the government's actions. Labor has surrendered the moral high ground it captured after the 2007 election with a promise to take a humane approach to asylum seekers. Rather than seeking to defend hard-won protections developed over decades by generations past, Labor now may as well give up the pretence of support for the refugee convention.

Mr Bowen, in particular, has shown disturbing cynicism - having invited the rights group Amnesty International to inspect the camp on Nauru, he blithely dismissed findings of unacceptable conditions as predictable. Non-government groups must be wary of attempts to exploit their reputation. The government has outsourced to Save the Children the welfare of children sent to Manus Island. Yet onshore or off, there is no escaping Australia's ultimate responsibilities.

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