This article was first published in The Guardian
rime minister Malcolm Turnbull and immigration minister Peter Dutton like to insist that our refugee policies are “the envy of the world”. But just pretending that everybody likes you doesn’t make it true. There is a rising tide of international condemnation being directed our way. And it tells us something – that on this issue, we have completely lost our moral compass as a nation.
On Tuesday former Canadian prime minister Joe Clark called our offshore detention regime “horrendous”. The Canada-based Global Centre for Pluralism went even further, slamming what it described as “inhumane policies” and “toxic rhetoric”, which “are a threat to inclusive societies”.
Their criticisms echo what the international community has been saying for years. When Australia was last reviewed by its peers at the United Nations, our government was hit with 39 calls to change the way it treats refugees. Concerns were raised by every single one of our top four trade partners – China, the United States, Japan and South Korea.
So our friends are clearly telling us that our cruelty to refugees is a problem. We need to listen.
The UN itself has also made its disdain abundantly clear. Treaty bodies and UN investigators have repeatedly found that indefinite detention on Manus and Nauru violates basic standards of humane treatment. The UN human rights chief used his first ever speech at the UN to condemn our government’s actions. Just this week the UN refugee agency labelled our offshore detention regime “a destructive and dangerous precedent”.
As much as Turnbull and Dutton try to pretend otherwise, the truth is that they are being condemned, not congratulated, on the world stage. And rightly so – their policies are a profoundly harmful failure at the global, national and individual levels.
At a global level, the Turnbull government’s “single-minded focus on deterrence” fundamentally misses the point. People fleeing danger deserve safety. To get it they must go somewhere. The focus needs to be on making sure they get there in a safe and orderly way. After all, if every country in the world had a “single-minded focus on deterrence” then persecuted people would be left with nowhere to flee.
At a national level, these policies are rapidly corroding the key pillars of our democratic and legal system. Draconian secrecy laws now expose whistleblowers to the risk of two years prison. The Migration Act and other important laws are being stripped of basic safeguards. The courts are being sidelined. Appeal rights are being slashed. Access to legal help is being impeded. Huge discretionary powers to make life or death decisions are being placed in the hands of one politician – the minister for immigration.
These are especially dangerous developments in a country without a domestic bill of rights. Democracy and the rule of law are our key checks and balances on government power. Both are being trashed.
Then there is the direct impact on innocent people. For all the toxic, politicised white noise about borders and boats, people are what this is fundamentally about. And they are being brutally mistreated.
I’ve been over to Manus Island three times and seen first-hand the absolutely awful conditions our government is imprisoning people in. My first trip was in March 2014, just after Reza Barati was murdered by contractors our government paid to keep him safe.
I won’t ever forget the looks of absolute fear and exhaustion on the faces of those men. It beggars belief that four years later – after eight more deaths and countless violent attacks – they are still there, trapped behind those same fences.
Last week a handful finally found safety in the US. For them, this ordeal is now finally over. But while Turnbull was as effusive as ever in his self-congratulations, I’m going to hold my applause. Because after four long years filled with violence, suffering and death, safety for a handful is nowhere near good enough.
There are still 2,000 people being warehoused by our government in its offshore camps. 1,783 of them are proven refugees. 169 of them are children.
Men are dying on Manus. Women have been sexually assaulted on Nauru. Children have been so traumatised by offshore detention that they’ve needed acute psychiatric care in Australia. Families have been ripped apart simply because they arrived seeking safety on different dates.
It simply can’t continue.
We’re spending billions of dollars per year. Our international reputation is being trashed. Our legal and democratic system is being undermined. And thousands of innocent lives are being destroyed.
It becomes more and more clear with every passing day that the only humane and responsible way forward is to evacuate everyone trapped on Nauru and Manus to safety in Australia.
If Turnbull and Dutton then want to prowl around the globe trying to find safe third countries to send people to – go for it. But they can’t leave people in danger any longer. Because if they do, then further misery, suffering and death is absolutely inevitable.
Daniel Webb is Director of Legal Advocacy of the Human Rights Law Centre