A modest pledge won't erase the stain of Manus and Nauru

A modest pledge won't erase the stain of Manus and Nauru

This piece was first published by The Age

Our Prime Minister, Immigration Minister and Foreign Minister have spent this week in New York attending high-profile global summits on refugees. They arrived insisting that the Australian government's policies were the "best in the world", but they'll leave having offered little more than self-congratulations.

The summits were an important opportunity for Malcolm Turnbull to show leadership on both global and local challenges – globally to the unprecedented number of people fleeing danger and locally to the festering sores that are the offshore camps on Nauru and Manus.

But Turnbull comprehensively shirked both.

He pledged a modest funding increase for global relief efforts – spread over the next three years – and to do no more than maintain our current planned refugee intake. He also failed to offer any way forward from the Nauru and Manus dead ends.

While the government, on the world stage, tried to pretend otherwise, the situation in its offshore centres is becoming more and more untenable by the day.

The legal framework is crumbling, with the highest court in PNG ruling the Manus facility is illegal. The companies operating the centres are walking away, first Broadspectrum, then Wilson Security, now Connect Settlement Services. Most importantly, every day the government refuses to act, innocent people continue to suffer.

In recent months I've sat face to face with women who have been sexually assaulted on Nauru. I've seen a man collapse unconscious after being robbed and beaten with an iron bar on Manus. I've spoken with families desperate to begin rebuilding their lives in safety but who languish on a painful road to nowhere after three years.

Turnbull's announcements in New York won't end their suffering and his self-congratulations rub salt into their wounds.

Deliberate cruelty to innocent people is fundamentally wrong. And there are alternatives – innovative and humane.

The underlying issue is there are people in our region who have fled danger who need protection and a chance to rebuild their lives. Our policy objective should be to make sure they can access these things in a safe and orderly way.

Deterrence doesn't help. Rather than using costly and cruel measures to close unsafe pathways we need to look at innovative ways of opening up new ones. Measures which improve conditions in transit countries and re-allocate some of our huge skilled migration intake to skilled people who are also seeking asylum should be considered.

The bottom line is that whatever the policy challenge, deliberate cruelty to innocent people is never the solution. Turnbull's modest pledge on the world stage to welcome one group of people seeking safety doesn't justify his continued mistreatment of another.

The men, women and children on Nauru and Manus must be brought to Australia to begin rebuilding their lives. After three years of fear, violence and limbo, it is well and truly time.

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