TOM VOSMER is a Freo resident and advocate for refugees. With Universal Children’s Day upon us, he says we’ve at last got something to celebrate – but only just.
NOVEMBER 20 is Universal Children’s Day, and for the refugee children on Nauru we finally have something to celebrate.
The government has promised to have all children off the island and into Australia by the end of the year.
The perfect storm that developed with the convergence of mounting health problems on Nauru and Manus, the banning of Médecins sans Frontières by the government of Nauru and rising awareness in the Australian public of the horrendous conditions and plight of asylum seekers on Nauru (highlighted by the wins in Mayo and Wentworth by candidates with strong pro-asylum seeker positions) has finally led the government to act.
Pity it took so long. Pity we have destroyed so many lives in the process.
While the government may have a mandate to ’stop the boats’, when did we hand them a mandate to criminalise innocent people, to treat them with contempt, to deliberately impose on them unnecessary suffering, to fail them on every level of our duty of care?
How can Australia justify deliberate maltreatment of people who in their desperation have abandoned their homes, jobs, extended families, friends, culture, all that is familiar to them, to seek safety?
Their ‘crime’ seemed to be the mode of transport they chose. Boats. They were also guilty of failing to not ‘join the queue’. But where exactly does one ‘queue up’ when fleeing violence and danger?
In an essay published in The Monthly, Shaun Hanns, who recently retired from the Australian Border Force, voices his support of strong borders and boat turnbacks, but utterly condemns indefinite offshore detention.
He forcefully argues that the Pacific Solution, shipping asylum seekers off to remote, out-of-sight, out-of-mind islands, has long passed its use-by date. He advocates bringing all refugees on Manus and Nauru to Australia.
Hanns states that the current policy is based on two false assumptions: the first is that any kindness we show will restart the flow of boats; the second is that this flow of boats would be so large it would overwhelm the system.
But as he points out, there have already been two ‘acts of kindness’: in 2014, when nearly half the people who arrived in Australia after 2013 were allowed to stay in the community and in 2016, when a resettlement deal with the United States was announced.
Neither led to a surge in boats, suggesting that the boat turnback policy alone is sufficient. There is even talk from the government of another act of kindness — to finally accept New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 refugees annually.
Despite being aware of the fundamental problems of offshore detention for years, despite recognising that their own policy was the cause of the problems, despite ongoing international condemnation, successive Australian governments refused to consider any easing of the draconian policy.
Prime minister Morrison has claimed he’s been on his knees in tears over the difficult border protection decisions because he didn’t want Border Force agents to keep pulling dead children from the water.
That rationale is disingenuous.
Yes, the risk of perishing at sea attempting to get to Australia is high and about 1100 people have died, but there are perfectly practical ways to ensure the safety of asylum seekers at sea that do not include inflicting suffering and hopelessness on other asylum seekers.
The prime minister has the power to change that policy.
He had the power when he was minister of immigration, he has the power now to end forever the cruel, expensive and unnecessary policy designed to stop the boats.
Since Pauline Hanson’s 1996 maiden speech to the House of Representatives in which she declared that we were in danger of being ‘swamped with Asians’ and with the Tampa affair in 2001, when John Howard further propelled the nation into a fearful xenophobic mentality, Australia lost its moral compass, its compassion, its humanitarian values.
Successive governments have thrived, and sometimes just survived, through exploiting xenophobia and demonising asylum seekers.
It is time to reverse this morally bankrupt, useless and shameful policy.
Can we dare hope that by Universal Children’s Day we will have even something more to celebrate, that we are ending the suffering of all the refugees on Manus and Nauru? Bring them here.