(perhaps not quite)
MELISSA PARKE is Fremantle’s federal Labor MP who, upon Kevin Rudd’s return to the prime ministership, was elevated to his ministry as Minister for International Development. It was all going so well, and then Kevin 2.0 dropped a bombshell—anyone seeking asylum in Australia via boat would be shipped to PNG and, even if found to be a refugee, would never be settled in Australia. Not only was it “tougher” than Julia Gillard’s proposal, it’s arguably more hard-nosed than Tony “Stop the Boats” Abbott. The message is blunt and brutal—get on a boat and you never get to live here. It put Ms Parke, formerly a human rights lawyer with the United Nations and one of Labor’s most outspoken supporters of more humane treatment of asylum seekers, in an awkward position and had her political opponents baying for her blood for “caving in”. In this week’s THINKING ALLOWED, she explains why she’s prepared to give the “PNG Solution” a go.
I have received a number of inquiries from Fremantle people interested to know my position on the government’s regional resettlement arrangement with Papua New Guinea.
I understand and indeed share the concerns many people have and I continue to hold and argue for the position I have always held—that Australia has an important part to play in the compassionate treatment of people seeking refuge from conflict and persecution around the world we all share.
There are 46 million people on the move worldwide: around 16 million registered refugees and millions more seeking asylum, mostly in neighbouring countries, as we are seeing with the exodus of people from Syria into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
Due to our geography, very few asylum seekers actually come to Australia, but far too many are dying at sea
It is unacceptable that there is a small baby lying in the morgue with no name and no parents.
It is unacceptable that there has developed a form of business around encouraging asylum seekers to seek refuge in Australia by boat, and this business practice shows little regard for the danger involved.
More than a thousand asylum seekers have died in recent years as a result of this practice, and I don’t think this is something anyone can be sanguine about.
In addition to the thousands of refugees who manage to transit to Australia through third countries and then by boat, there are hundreds of thousands who are stuck in refugee camps, unable to go anywhere. These are often the people with the least amount of personal freedom or agency or ability to improve their terrible and dangerous living circumstances. I am glad Australia has always chosen to make a significant contribution to resettling refugees from camps—and that we will continue to do so.
The fact is there are no simple answers, no magic solutions. Rather, we are going to need to work with other countries around the world and in our region.
Ultimately what we want to see is a regional protection framework where asylum seekers’ claims are processed in transit countries while they wait in safe conditions and with the reasonable and legitimate expectation they will be resettled within a reasonable period of time.
This is what happened with the Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and ‘80s. The difference is that back then Malcolm Fraser’s government had the bipartisan support of the Labor opposition. Now, Tony Abbott and the Coalition have stirred up an intense and aggressive political debate based on simplistic slogans. It is difficult to address complex issues in the face of dumbed-down mantras.
My hope is that, as difficult and challenging it is, the regional resettlement arrangement with PNG might represent a first step to address a complicated issue. We are saying to people, “don’t risk your life by getting on a boat, as we will help you resettle in safe conditions in Australia and other places under the regional protection framework”.
I welcome the Australian government’s commitment to ensure refugees and asylum seekers are treated with dignity and respect, and in accordance with human rights. I will be working to ensure this commitment is kept.
I particularly welcome the government’s decision to lift our humanitarian intake from 14,000 to 20,000—and its commitment now to lift the intake further to 27,000 in keeping with the Houston Report recommendations. That will mean we have doubled our intake of refugees, which is the right thing to do, and a significant positive reform by a Labor government.
I welcome the commitment of the Indonesian government and other countries in the region to tackle this matter on a regional basis to address the challenges we all face together, rather than taking the Fortress-Australia approach of Tony Abbott, which consists of unilateral action by Australia to turn back boats and not worry about what happens afterwards.
We need to encourage more resettlement countries to take more refugees.
We also cannot underestimate the push factors causing people to leave their homes, and so we must work with source countries to improve conditions that create refugees in the first place. I see this as an integral part of my new role as Minister for International Development.