Ordinary Australians are tired of the casual cruelty of hard-line border control policies. The medical evacuation bill was introduced by Dr Kerryn Phelps to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island can access the medical care they require. The bill was passed because our elected representatives, too, recognise that enough is enough.
The Government has spent huge amounts of time, effort and public money to resist the transfer to Australia of children, women and men in dire need of medical attention. Even if the boats have stopped, people are continuing to die on our watch.
Yesterday morning, as the Senate was debating the bill, Scott Morrison announced he would be reopening the detention facility on Christmas Island.
The need for that action is questionable, but the political benefit is clear — playing into the narrative that the bill has given a green light to the people smugglers and that Australia will be inundated with boat arrivals. Government ministers are blanketing the airwaves with threats that the boats will start again and that the “thousands” of transferees will be in Australia within a month.
But the Government is highly selective in the information that it releases on asylum seekers. For example, while we are told that they have “stopped the boats”, little has been said about the record 27,000 on-shore asylum applications in 2018. Most claimants have come by plane from Malaysia and China.
While most of those sent to Manus and Nauru have been recognised as Convention refugees, only about 2 per cent of these on-shore arrivals succeed in their claims. Many seem to be using asylum processes as a back door to temporary work visas. This should ring alarm bells that major trafficking operations have begun to flourish here.
Knowing that Labor remains vulnerable on boats and refugees, the Prime Minister is doubling down on his border control rhetoric. In 2010, when the Coalition was in opposition, we wrote an article called, Do Loose Lips Bring Ships. We argued that the surge in boat arrivals occurring around that time was due at least in part to their rhetoric about loss of control and government dysfunction in the area of migration policy. Who can forget the opposition funding a truck mounted with a huge billboard that travelled around Perth, with a moveable panel that was ratchetted up every time another boat arrived?
The situation now is even more concerning as it is the sitting government asserting that border policies have been weakened. The claims are baseless as the amended bill clearly excludes future arrivals.
There is no immediate evidence that offshore processing (as opposed to direct push-back initiatives) is effective in deterring maritime asylum seekers. Mandatory detention in remote places certainly has no effect other than to burn up a great deal of public money to perpetuate the cycle of harm we have seen so often before.
If there is a pull factor at play here, it is the Government’s misrepresentations and rhetoric about loss of control over our borders.
Medical issues aside, it is shameful that the situation of Australia’s warehoused refugees remains unresolved. By rights the children, women and men languishing offshore should already be in school and well into new lives. It is where they would be, but for the Government’s inexplicable reluctance to accept resettlement offers from New Zealand that have been on the table for years.
If we are to be serious about border control while protecting peoples’ basic human rights, it is high time that we stopped playing politics with migration laws. Really Australia, we can do better.
Professor Mary Crock is professor of public law at Sydney Law School and an accredited specialist in immigration law. Dr Daniel Ghezelbash is a senior lecturer at Macquarie Law School and special counsel at the National Justice Project.
First published in ABC News, 14 February 2019