Instead of solving a problem that doesn’t exist, Malcolm Turnbull must address the one that does

Instead of solving a problem that doesn’t exist, Malcolm Turnbull must address the one that does

This piece was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald

Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed lifetime visa ban is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist and an attempt to distract us from one that does.

The proposal is absurd, the wedge politics cynical and the explanations insincere. Sadly, the fear and harm being caused is real.

While much of the focus has been on the impact the proposal would have on those who may one day seek to come to Australia, I’ve seen first-hand how Turnbull’s announcement has absolutely terrified 320 people already here.

“My kids really love school here, but now they’re scared of being sent back to Nauru,” said Ben*, one of the 320 people we are assisting. Ben is living in Australia with his family. The family arrived by boat seeking asylum and were sent to Nauru, but were brought back to Australia for medical reasons and now live in our community.

His children go to the local primary school and are thriving. His daughter dreams of being a nurse, his son a scientist. The family have been through a lot but they are rebuilding their lives. For the first time in years, Ben has been feeling hopeful.

But that has changed after Turnbull announced his plan to impose a lifetime ban on people who arrive by boat from ever staying in Australia. The ban would also prevent people coming as tourists, students, for business purposes or to visit loved ones. The ban would last indefinitely.

Ben and his family are part of a group of more than 320 people, including over 60 children, who were previously held offshore but returned to Australia after suffering serious harm inside the Nauru or Manus detention centres. Most of the group were released into the community after the high profile Let Them Stay campaign in February this year generated widespread support for their plight.

The group also includes more than 40 babies born in Australia – children born in Australian hospitals who have never seen a boat but who, thanks to retrospective changes to the Migration Act, are now legally classified as if they arrived on one.

After so long in the community, and with so much public support, the 320 people were hopeful the government would do the sensible thing and allow them to apply for refugee visas. But Turnbull’s sudden talk of lifetime bans has left them terrified.

Turnbull’s changes will permanently separate families. I was on Manus Island recently and met Nayser Ahmed, who arrived on a different date to his wife and children. In the time between their boats arriving, Kevin Rudd announced the PNG deal. So while his family are rebuilding their lives in Sydney, Ahmed has been stuck on Manus for the past three years.

Ahmed said he wants what every father in the world wants – to sit down at the end of the day and enjoy a meal with his children.

Instead, every night for the past three years he’s had to queue for his food with 900 other men inside the Manusdetention centre. And if Turnbull’s proposed changes go ahead, Ahmed will be banned from ever joining his wife and kids in Australia.

The thing that makes the real harm caused by Turnbull’s announcement especially hard to take is the changes being proposed are completely unnecessary. The Migration Act and regulations are already littered with legal devices and open-ended discretions that give the Immigration Minister more than enough tools to exclude people if he wants to.  He doesn’t need more. Pretending he does is a smokescreen.

Turnbull’s ban would also clearly breach our international human rights obligations – particularly problematic at a time when Australia is campaigning for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. One of the central tenets of the Refugee Convention – contained in Article 31 – is that governments must not impose penalties on refugees just because they arrive and seek asylum without prior authorisation. A lifetime ban is quite clearly a penalty, so Turnbull’s proposal would breach the convention. Glibly denying it over and over again doesn’t change that fact.

Instead of harmful, absurd and unlawful solutions to problems that don’t exist, Turnbull must address the one that does. The Nauru and Manus island arrangements are dead ends. They become more and more untenable by the day. The government urgently needs to find a humane way forward.

Terrifying people already in our communities and ripping apart families won’t help. After three years of fear, violence and limbo it’s time to bring the innocent people on Nauru and Manus to safety in Australia and to allow people already rebuilding their lives in our communities to stay.

*Name has been changed.

Daniel Webb is director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre