May, 2013: Iranian asylum seekers caught in Indonesian waters while sailing to Australia, sit on a boat in Bali, while Australia is in talks. Firdia Lisnawati / Press Association. All rights reserved.After years of legal argy bargy the Papua New Guinea (PNG) High Court has handed down its judgement on the constitutionality of the Australian government-funded Manus Island Detention Centre. That facility was set up in PNG in 2013 and has been used by the Australian government as an off-shore “processing” prison to house “unauthorized arrival” asylum seekers who have been apprehended by the Australian Navy in their attempt to lodge a claim for asylum in Australia.
The PNG High Court’s decision was a unanimous rejection of this secretive arrangement between the “border protection” agendas of the Australian government and unconstitutional foreign capital seeking interests in PNG politics. Manus Island Detention Centre has been ordered to close immediately.
Because Universal Human Rights are enshrined in the PNG constitution (unlike the Australian constitution), it was clear from the very beginning that the Manus Island Detention centre was unconstitutional and would not survive being challenged in the High Court. The deal between successive Australian governments and the PNG government to indefinitely detain boat arrival asylum seekers, and to make it clear that even legitimate asylum seekers within this system of offshore detention would never be accepted by Australia, is a clear abrogation of the human rights of those asylum seekers under the terms of the UNHCR convention to which both Australia and PNG are signatories. However, Australia and PNG approach the relationship between their UNHCR obligations and the laws of the land in very different ways. Placing conditions on the unconditional right for desperate displaced people to seek asylum in signatory nations – no matter how they arrive – is a serious abrogation of Australia’s responsibilities as a UNHCR signatory.
To Australia, being a signatory of the UNHCR is a foreign policy commitment that seems to be outside of the terms of Australian law. Hence, since the Howard government years, Australian governments have radically modified Australian immigration laws so that they are no longer governed by the UNHCR in regard to ‘boat arrival’ asylum seekers.
Now the Australian government has the power to decide which asylum seeker claims it will actively consider, which asylum seeker claims it will indefinitely “process” (detainees can return to their country of origin at any time, but their asylum claims are processed very slowly if at all), and to which asylum seeker claimants the Australian government will definitely refuse to grant asylum, whether or not they have legitimate claims.
Charitably one might say that Australia treats its UNHCR commitments with considerable flexibility. Actually, it is clear that placing conditions on the unconditional right for desperate displaced people to seek asylum in signatory nations – no matter how they arrive – is a serious abrogation of Australia’s responsibilities as a signatory.
PNG law, unlike Australian law, does not allow human rights to be legally abrogated. Australian negotiators cannot have failed to know this when they secured PNG’s off-shore detention assistance, firstly under the Rudd Labour government in 2013. The outcome of this PNG High Court ruling, then, can also have been no surprise to the Australian government. Clearly the Australian government has opportunistically used the appeal of large injections of foreign capital to seduce the PNG government to act, contrary to its own constitution, so as to facilitate the Australian government in acting contrary to its UNHCR obligations. This is scandalous in every register.
The main power blocks in Australia politics – the ALP and the Coalition – show no signs at all of even blushing now that the Manus Island game is up. No, they are “standing firm” on the supposed moral high ground of their refusal to honour their UNHCR obligations.
Of course, it is not framed like that. It is framed like this: for profoundly humanitarian reasons Australia must refuse to honour its UNHCR obligations to these “unauthorized arrival” asylum seekers because it is concerned for their safety at sea and because its compassionate and principled leaders so deeply hate those despicable people smugglers who trade in desperation and misery. Australia's compassionate and principled leaders so deeply hate those despicable people smugglers who trade in desperation and misery.
The Australian people have been repeatedly told that only strong border protection could be good for these asylum seekers, even though, clearly, strong border protection that locks out unauthorized arrival asylum seekers obviously means that only asylum seekers who can get on planes with at least apparently valid documents will ever have their claims considered by Australian immigration authorities.
The Australian government has in fact decided that the most vulnerable of displaced people – including the people on Manus Island and Nauru – will never be helped by Australia. And yet, the Australian government also wants to claim that it is out of humanitarian compassion for those very excluded people that we must “stand firm” with this off-shore detention policy.
Let us call a spade a spade. Everyone knows that Australia’s “border protection” agenda is the opposite of compassionate towards vulnerable people who get on boats who wish to lodge an asylum claim in Australia.
“Border protection” is a tough deterrence policy that wants to make the experience of being an asylum seeker in an off-shore Australian detention facility as harrowing as possible, and which explicitly promises to make their claims for asylum in Australia hopeless. Further, this process is inaccessible to media or independent scrutiny as it is now a military operation cloaked in secrecy because it claims to be protecting the national security interests of Australia. Further, this process is inaccessible to media or independent scrutiny as it is now a military operation cloaked in secrecy.
So in real terms, it is the boat people themselves the Australian government has criminalized, dehumanized and demonized, and it is against them that Australian politicians on both sides of party power have uncompromisingly “stood firm” in refusing to open their hearts with human compassion to the plight of the desperate.
Alas, unscrupulous people smugglers and horrifying drownings at sea are a convenient propaganda opportunity that grants Australian politicians a delusional moral fig leaf to place over their callous indifference to the plight of vulnerable asylum seekers. It is in protection of this ridiculous moral fig leaf that Australian politicians now all “stand firm” and will not take any recognized refugees from Manus Island back to Australia.
The fact is, since the emergence of the post-9/11 climate of externalized fear, both major Australian party blocks have used the “border protection” idea to explicitly harden the Australian heart to the world’s most vulnerable people in order to play to the invasion fears and collective insecurities of the Australian electorate. That is what is really going on here.
As an Australian I have to wonder when we are ever going to be ashamed about our opportunistic and self-interested manipulation of our neighbours, and our scapegoating lack of compassion for asylum seekers? If we cannot even feel shame over these matters, then our nation is at a very low moral ebb.
Come on Ozzy! Do the right thing. Or at the very least, blush.
Get our weekly email