Retiring MHR for Fremantle speaks out against Australia’s refugee policies.
It seems that in the last 15 years, Australia has forgotten the lessons of World War II—the direct connection with suffering that led Australia to be the sixth signatory to The Refugee Convention that brought it into force.
Most of the world’s 60m refugees are being hosted in poor neighbouring countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and increasingly in Europe.
Lebanon, a small country of 4m people, is hosting more than 2m Syrian refugees – half of its population again. It would be the equivalent of 12m people turning up on Australia’s doorstep. Against such numbers, our commitment of 13,000 humanitarian places is not nearly as generous as our political leaders would have the community believe. Of the additional 12,000 Syrian refugees Australia has committed to, only 26 have arrived so far. This is pitiful.
Even worse is the deliberate policy of cruelty that defines our offshore detention system, together with the mantra that no-one who arrives by boat will ever be resettled in Australia. What a mockery this makes of our commitments to the UN refugee convention. What a mockery it makes of our commitment to the international rule of law, which we are fond of quoting at the Chinese when it comes to their island-building activities in the South China Sea. What a mockery it makes of our claim to be a respecter of human rights.
But, for the most part, they claim, we are saving people from drowning at sea and we are stopping the evil people smugglers. Isn’t it extraordinary that the government denounces evil people smugglers while at the same time paying them to take people in the other direction? This is a crime under both domestic and international law.
Last year, the government made amendments to the Migration Act that were, unfortunately, supported by the Labor opposition, in which it retrospectively absolved itself of responsibility for everything that has happened on Manus and Nauru since August 2012.
The High Court recently upheld that law as constitutional. Why? Because there are virtually no human rights protections in the Australian Constitution and the parliament has the power to make laws on any matter, no matter how draconian. This is why many people have been calling for a bill of rights or a human rights act.
Of course, regardless of the domestic legal position, under international law Australia cannot contract out its legal responsibilities and remains responsible for the plight of people it sends to Manus and Nauru.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is an edited version of a speech I gave to Parliament on February 29. It reflects the deep disappointment I feel in relation to current policy concerning the treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees. However, there are glimmers of hope. Last year the mass demonstrations following the death of Aylan Kurdi resulted in the Government expanding the humanitarian program and this year the High Court’s decision regarding offshore processing led to the ‘Let Them Stay’ campaign. The involvement of medical staff at Lady Cilento Hospital in this campaign was crucial. I applaud the courage of doctors and other medical staff in refusing to discharge baby Asha and her mother until assurances were given that they would not be returned to Nauru. I also commend the powerful speech given by AMA President Prof Brian Fowler in February this year. Civil society, including the medical profession, is leading the way towards the just treatment of asylum-seekers in Australia.