As questions are raised about the readiness of Manus Island to receive asylum seekers and debate rages about whether the “no advantage” test is harsh enough, it becomes increasingly clear that we are in the process of writing pages of history that future generations will wish they could erase.
These pages will sound strangely familiar to some written in the years prior to 2007 – tales of hunger strikes, children in detention, riots and protests – that a nation sought to expunge in the election of a leader promising a new approach towards asylum seekers.
In those days, the images of lips sewn together, the suicide attempts and the destruction of people’s mental health together became unconscionable to the electorate. Today, political reality, the media environment and public opinion have conspired to lead us down a path we have trod before, and not enjoyed treading.
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One of the most dramatic political back flips ever performed has just passed the House of Representatives, after the Gillard Government and the Opposition voted in favour of reopening immigration detention centres for offshore processing of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.
If it makes it through the Senate, which the Prime Minister is hoping to have done by tomorrow afternoon, it’s the first step towards the implementation of Angus Houston’s “hard headed but not hard hearted” plan. It will take Australia straight back to John Howard’s “Pacific Solution” – a regime which until a few days ago Julia Gillard vehemently opposed.
So what exactly did the Angus Houston, Paris Aristotle and Michael L’Strange recommend? The first problem with the Panel’s report is its underlying “no advantage” principle which intends to ensure that “no benefit is gained through circumnavigating regular migration arrangements”.
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Ahmed* was an unaccompanied 15 year Hazara boy when he reached Christmas Island on his second attempt in 2010. He would have been in the 800 the Government wanted to send to Malaysia as part of their human swap deal but for the High Court’s intervention.
Even now, almost two years later, his face clouds as he talks of that time of indecision on Christmas Island, the anguish and bitter disappointment of having reached safety to then be despatched again into the unknown. He is still marked by the cruelty of that proposal.
This cruelty is what both major parties want us to be known for throughout our region. South East Asia has the lowest density of Refugee Convention signatory countries. Australia was among the first to ratify this 60 years ago but very few of our neighbours have followed our example. The experience of the Pacific Solution showed that we are not going to be swamped with other countries’ offers of resettling refugees who have come to us for protection. We can’t have it all ways.
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Lyall Mercer has been a consultant to members of the Nauru Parliament in the past, which has given him a unique insight into their thinking and convinced him that Nauru would have be a better answer to the current asylum seeker debacle.
Nauru is not the simplistic and utopian answer to all of Australia’s asylum seeker challenges, but there would be many advantages of setting up camp in this tiny island nation.
The Federal Government is being stubborn and offensively stupid by continuing to talk about Malaysia. Given their failed talks with East Timor and various other nations, they have no credibility left on this subject.
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Tony Abbott is a beautiful boy. His straight hair, perfect eyes, ears and nose. No, I am not talking about the Opposition Leader but the 3.47kg baby boy in Nauru who now bears his name.
On the way into Nauru Hospital on Sunday June 12, Nauru Foreign Minister Dr Kieren Keke warned Mr Abbott that he should watch out if a child was born while he was in the maternity unit.
Nauru mothers often name their babies after the first person they see, he explained, and there are plenty of Nauruans named after celebrities. “You might have a few questions to answer,” Dr Keke said with a laugh.
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Clear the waffle and you find the Government and the Opposition now have a bipartisan position on dealing with asylum seekers who arrive by boat.
It’s quite simple: Put them in the closest to squalor we dare endorse, and hope that the nastiness of the accommodation deters other refugee hopefuls.
And it is an unmistakable message: Our Hell hole could be worse than the Hell hole you are now living in. Or at least, it might not be worth the risk and expense of setting out by boat to find out.
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Nauru has the greatest airline in the world. It’s called Our Airline. The leased-from-Taiwan 737-300 looks a little dated, not having those upturned wing tips which denote a modern plane, but the smiles of the Nauruan flight attendants are warm and welcoming.
There are plenty of spare seats (flying in and flying out) and they offer long-flight sedation in the form of brimming plastic cups of red wine. One of the flight attendants even has her own baby on board, a homey touch.
This airline used to be called Air Nauru. Then, in 2005, the last of its more contemporary 737-400 series jets was repossessed as the country fell into a heap. Clearly, the older plane’s navigational equipment is up to scratch. You’d need it to find this pin-drop island in the middle of the night.
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At the press conference announcing his hard-line policy on asylum seekers Tony Abbott declared himself ‘a big risk to people smugglers’. While he claimed that ‘if I get elected, people smugglers will go out of business’, Abbott stressed that ‘my argument is not with desperate people who want a better life’.
If only it were that simple. The reality is that the Opposition’s policy constitutes a grave risk to traumatized people who will, if the policy is implemented, be traumatized further.
Temporary protection visas will be reintroduced for irregular maritime arrivals who are found to engage Australia’s protection obligations, as well as for others.
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The Pacific Solution has been replaced by the Indian Ocean non-solution.
In the ABC documentary The Howard Years those responsible for the Pacific Solution said that the mandatory detention camps they inherited from Labor were almost bursting, due to the influx of boats.
We face the same situation with the Christmas Island Detention Centre rapidly filling up as the boats keep coming.
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