A matter that should weigh on our conscience

July 25, 2013

It is simply shameful that Australia, one of the most prosperous nations in the world, plans to use Papua New Guinea, one of the poorest and most dysfunctional, as a dumping ground for people who come here seeking asylum. Every one of us should be embarrassed and deeply concerned that our government has adopted this policy. Embarrassed, because it seeks to dispense with our vital, contracted responsibilities under the 1951 UN refugee convention by paying, in kind, another country to deal with the thousands of people who seek our assistance. And deeply concerned, because we are dealing here with people's lives.

Some 1100 people are believed to have died trying to make their way to Australia by boat since Labor came to power in 2007. More are feared drowned in seas south of Java after yet another boat, believed bound for Australia, capsized. That vessel would have departed Indonesia after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced on July 19 that from that day there was ''no chance'' anyone arriving by boat without a visa would ever be allowed to settle in Australia.

This is not a game of daring. This is not, as Foreign Minister Bob Carr tried to construe it recently, a kind of cunning adventure by ''middle-class'' people from the other side of the world who want to soak up the good life. The people who come to our shores are desperate. Even with the hardline PNG ''solution'' in place, still they are prepared to take enormous risks on the high seas.

The welfare of people who come to our shores seeking refuge is, like it or not, Australia's responsibility, and it will remain so irrespective of the artful devices the Rudd government - or, indeed, a possible future Coalition government - might dream up.

We have a duty to asylum seekers to do all we can to make sure they are safe. Arguably, that duty begins when our navy and coast-guard surveillance see their vessels on the horizon, but it certainly remains our moral responsibility even after Australian Immigration Department officials hand boat-bound asylum seekers over to authorities in PNG. They must remain our concern for years to come, even when they are ''processed'' and ''settled'' in PNG, by PNG officials and under PNG law. That is because, even if Australia's political leaders are exhibiting every sign to the contrary, this nation's signing of the UN refugee convention in 1951 committed its future generations to being people of conscience.

Yet we are treating asylum seekers like cargo. Policies, such as the mass transfer of all asylum seekers who arrive by boat, serve to strip each one of them of their individuality, of their essential dignity. All are cast in the same light, and their distress is exploited for political gain. These ship-them-away policies are politically expedient: they are promoted as deterrence strategies, yet with an eye to capturing the attention of a clutch of Australian voters who would prefer simply to say: ''We do not want them here.''

Now, too, allegations have emerged of rape and serious assaults occurring in the detention centre at Manus Island, a poorly equipped facility with a poorly conceived mission. Manus Island, it should be remembered, is an Australian immigration centre; asylum seekers were transferred there in November, although processing by newly trained PNG officials only began two weeks ago. It is a humid mess of tents and temporary buildings inhabited by people already distraught about their situation, who have sought sanctuary but instead have been all but abandoned to an indefinite limbo. Again, we have a duty of care to the people within this compound. It must not be shrugged off.

Nor does the answer lie in the Coalition's vacuous ''turn-back-the-boats'' plan; it is a potentially dangerous and impractical proposal. Yes, there are those who come here seeking a better life merely because they see Australia as a rather fine place to live - for that reason they do not qualify as refugees. To be clear, Australia is not being overrun with asylum seekers. It is not being ''swamped'', as fear-mongering bigots contend. It is dealing with the same sorts of issues that countries all around the world are facing: people are fleeing persecution in all its hateful forms. Of course Australia must grapple with the gravely serious problem of flimsy boats taking to open seas, which is leading to repeated tragedies. In discouraging an ocean crossing, however, we must not squirm away from important commitments and duties.


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