The Australia-US refugee deal is not a fair solution

By Sohini Mehta
Manus Island regional processing facility. DIBP images.

This month, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull confirmed Australia and the United States have agreed to a one-off resettlement deal for detainees on Manus Island and Nauru who have been granted refugee status.

Iranian refugee and journalist Behrouz Boochani responded to the news with mixed feelings. Though pleased that some of his fellow Manus Island detainees will eventually have a safe place to go, he is frustrated about leaving the island without justice and points to the human cost of Australia’s immigration policy: I feel that I am a [sic] not a human because they have used my body for propaganda to send a message to the world”.

This message is one of punitive deterrence: punishing the innocent to deter the guilty. Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are held in deplorable conditions offshore and boats laden with people are turned back to deter people smugglers. The government maintains that those held in offshore facilities will never be resettled in Australian communities as this would revive the armada of boats.

Despite the government’s talk of tackling the “scourge” of people smuggling, it appears to have been complicit in the trade; strong evidence from Amnesty International shows Australian officials paid off a migrant boat’s six-member crew to the tune of $32,000 in May 2015 and told them to take the migrants to Indonesia instead. Early this month, a refugee who came to Australia almost two years ago believing he had a valid visa was secretively deported from Melbourne to Nauru. The fact he was detained offshore despite arriving by cruise ship suggests Australia’s deterrent policies have more to do with national anxieties over porous borders than with tackling people smugglers or saving migrant lives.

Girt by sea and geographically isolated, Australia is uniquely situated to control who may enter its territory, and under what circumstances. As asylum seekers who arrive by boat are perceived to threaten the orderly conduct of Australia’s migration programme, control has become a fixation for many Australians.

The most obvious clue as to Australia’s culture of control is in the name of its military-led initiative to stop boat arrivals: Operation Sovereign Borders. Control rhetoric also dominates the Federal Government’s announcement of the recent refugee resettlement deal with the US. Prime Minister Turnbull omitted the timeline for resettlement and the number of refugees the US will take but gave assurances that a “significant” Defence operation around Northern Australia will deter boat arrivals by people smugglers. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said that “Nauru will remain in its current status forever” because the Federal Government will continue to rely on regional processing.

Dutton additionally urged the Senate to pass amendments to the Migration Act which propose a lifetime travel ban for asylum seekers who come by boat to Australia. Though Dutton has argued that the lifetime travel ban is needed to facilitate third country resettlement, there is no indication that Australia’s resettlement agreement with the US is contingent on the bill being passed through Parliament. The bill is not simply symbolic of xenophobic politics: it has perverse consequences for resettled refugees, who would not be allowed to obtain a visa to Australia as a tourist or a spouse.

The false expectation that the government can, and should, control all movements of people across its borders has diminished the tenor of Australia’s political debate and the quality of policymaking, with harmful results for refugees and asylum seekers.

The one-off resettlement agreement with the US fails to address the more critical question of the reasons for forced migration. Nauru, intended to be a place of temporary processing, will be one of indeterminate detention for future survivors of war and despotic regimes until further third country resettlement destinations are found.

Those asylum seekers who have not received a final or positive decision regarding their asylum claim and the 30 or so men who have refused to present their claims to Papua New Guinea authorities remain in limbo: many cannot go to their home countries, and the safety of refugees on Nauru and Manus Island cannot be assured.

Creating deterrent systems of coercion does not reduce migrants’ need for security and asylum.

Turnbull prioritises women, children and families for resettlement. By doing so, he tacitly acknowledges the public image of a migrant as a solitary, typically male, adult subject that forms part of a threatening mass of humans. But Turnbull’s appeal to the popular imagination overlooks the young men who arrived on Nauru and Manus Island as unaccompanied children, who should also be processed as a matter of urgency due to the horrific effect detention has had on them as children.

Resettlement in the US, though a vital first step to cease the indefinite detention of some of those Australia has sent to suffer on Nauru and Manus Island, reproduces the violence of displacement for refugees. Consider Nayser, a Rohingya man on Manus Island separated from his wife and children in Sydney. How will families presently separated between Australia, Nauru and Manus Island be reunited? What will happen to those refugees in transit who receive critical medical treatment in Australia and who have been embraced by local communities?

The government has deliberately chosen third country resettlement over its onshore alternative because it promotes the idea that spontaneous asylum seeking is bad, and ‘good’ refugees wait to be resettled. To take such extraordinary measures in pursuit of border control is not merely shameful but wholly unnecessary: creating deterrent systems of coercion does not reduce migrants’ need for security and asylum.

If asylum seekers were given hope of orderly processing and resettlement, the incentive to come by boat to Australia would recede. The fairest and most appropriate solution is to resettle those held offshore in Australia and to shift our humanitarian refugee intake from far-off camps in Costa Rica and the Middle East to regional transit countries, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia.