I went along to an asylum seeker forum at Gosford Anglican Parish, last night. Hosted by the awesome Father Rod Bower, MCd by Labor’s Senator Deborah O’Neill, with special guest speaker, Labor’s Shadow Immigration Minister, Richard Marles.
I was nervous when I arrived. When I left, I was furious! Here’s why…
Marles made just 7 points
Despite talking a lot, and very well, Marles made just 7 points:
- Liberal is worse than Labor
- Labor believes in compassion, fairness, generosity and no harm
- Any genuine refugees currently in offshore detention should be resettled in Australia
- Australia is faced with a “cohort” of 7 million refugees who want asylum here
- Our detention centres need to be run better
- Detention centres ARE a deterrent, but they’re not based on deprivation
- Mandatory detention is the only way to save lives at sea
Let’s take a look at each of these points individually…
Liberal is worse than Labor
No arguments here. They’re definitely worse. They reduced our total refugee intake quota from 20,000 under Labor to 13,750. They’re turning boats back (in breach of international law and Indonesia’s sovereignty). They haven’t processed a single claim for an asylum seeker in offshore detention since taking office (more than a year ago). They’re trying to change Australia’s law so it’s less bound by international law. And they’re trying to introduce temporary visas.
But let’s be clear. Labor are no angels. They introduced offshore detention, under Gillard. And they want it retained.
Labor believes in compassion, fairness, generosity and no harm
What’s compassionate about locking up people who are fleeing murder, torture, wrongful imprisonment and other forms of persecution? What’s fair about that (remember, it breaches international law)? Or generous?
And no harm? Seriously?! According to The Age, the organisation contracted to provide medical services in detention centres (International Health and Medical Services) reported that:
About half the asylum seekers in detention on Manus Island and Nauru are suffering from significant depression, stress or anxiety, according to clinical assessments… specialists blame the “detention environment” rather than the adequacy of services for the worsening mental health of detainees.”
Then of course there’s their physical health to consider. Detainees are imprisoned in squalid conditions, without adequate access to appropriate healthcare. And people are dying, for God’s sake!
Sure, Marles says he thinks the centres should be run better, but almost in the same breath he said we can’t guarantee the safety of asylum seekers kept in detention.
It’s clear that Labor doesn’t believe in compassion, fairness, generosity and no harm. It’s just more hypocrisy.
Any genuine refugees currently in offshore detention should be resettled in Australia
Marles clearly said this last night. And I completely agree. But I don’t believe him at all. In fact, he said exactly the opposite back in April, when discussing the possibility that some refugees from Manus Island might have to be resettled in Australia:
Nothing would be more detrimental to Australia’s strategy to reducing the flow of boats from Indonesia than that.”
Not very convincing, Richard.
Australia is faced with a “cohort” of 7 million refugees who want asylum here
First things first. 7 million refugees are NOT trying to seek asylum in Australia. Yes, there are approximately 7 millions refugees seeking permanent asylum in another country, and yes, I’m sure many/most/all would love that country to be Australia. But only a very small handful of them have the means to get here or are trying to.
So to suggest that our asylum seeker responsibilities must be considered in the context of 7 million people who need our help is disingenuous. There are other countries who also resettle refugees. It’s a shared international load.
Now… “Cohort”… WTF?! According to Merriam-Webster, here’s the definition of ‘cohort’:
a: one of 10 divisions of an ancient Roman legion
b: a group of warriors or soldiers
c: band, group
d: a group of individuals having a statistical factor (as age or class membership) in common in a demographic study <a cohort of premedical students>”
Notice that the first 2 definitions are military, implying aggression, military might, strategy and conquering tendencies? Even the third implies at least some of internal coordination and planning. Only the very last definition is that of a group of individuals sharing some arbitrary quality (and thus only the last is appropriate).
This use of language is disingenuous and deliberately inflammatory. Asylum seekers are not a military division attempting to conquer Australia. They’re scared, desperate people, fleeing persecution in their home countries.
EDIT: A few people on Google+ have questioned my criticism of the word ‘cohort’. They say it’s quite commonly used to describe groups of people (e.g. students by year or subject, or in science to mean a common group with similar characteristics). So my criticism may be more a reflection of me than of his meaning and agenda. Maybe. To me, it stood out like a sore thumb, so I’m not convinced enough to remove the discussion about it.
Our detention centres need to be run better
Yes! Yes they do. On this, Marles and I agree. But were they run better under Labor? (Remember it was Gillard who re-introduced offshore processing on Nauru and Manus.) Well, according to this Parliamentary paper from September 2012 (while Labor was in office), things were pretty grim back then too:
The main issues of concern expressed by many stakeholders regarding the ‘Pacific Solution’ revolved around the conditions of the offshore processing centres; the lack of independent scrutiny; the mental health impacts on those held in the centres; and the lengthy periods of time that many asylum seekers spent on Nauru and Manus Island while their claims were being processed.
The conditions on Nauru and Manus Island attracted a great deal of criticism at the time from refugee advocates and other stakeholders, including many parliamentarians. The report of the inquiry into A Certain Maritime Incident outlined many of these concerns and noted that the Nauru site initially lacked water, sanitation and electricity with asylum seekers housed under harsh conditions. Evidence to the Select Committee suggested that the facilities on Manus were a slight improvement on those in Nauru; however, several asylum seekers contracted malaria.
Several witnesses to the Committee also expressed concern about the lack of independent scrutiny, difficulty in obtaining access to the facilities and an apparent lack of access to legal advice for detainees. Australian Lawyers for Human Rights told the Committee that when they sought to send a team of lawyers to Nauru to provide legal advice to asylum seekers the Nauruan Government refused them visas. In 2002, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC—formerly HREOC) also requested permission to inspect the facilities on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea as part of its National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, but the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) ‘reiterated its position that the HREOC Act did not have extra-territorial effect and declined to assist the Inquiry with these visits’.”
Maybe Marles means ‘better than both Liberal and Labor have done it’. But he certainly didn’t say that (indeed, in the context of his Liberal-slamming, it was clear that’s not what he meant).
Detention centres ARE a deterrent, but they’re not based on deprivation
Marles agreed with Father Rod Bower that mandatory detention is used as a deterrent. But he denied it was based on deprivation. So let’s look at the definition of deprivation:
1: the state of being deprived : privation; especially : removal from an office, dignity, or benefice
2: an act or instance of depriving : loss
Imprisoning asylum seekers for doing no more than exercising their fundamental human rights is depriving them of freedom and dignity. It’s laughable (although not funny) to argue detention centres are not about deprivation. By definition, that’s exactly what they’re about.
Mandatory detention is the only way to save lives at sea
Many times during the night, Marles positioned mandatory detention as both a solution to deaths at sea and the only solution to deaths at sea. This argument is false and disingenuous on three fronts…
Firstly, there’s no verifiable evidence to support the argument that mandatory detention policies deter asylum seekers from trying to reach Australia. When Howard introduced it in 2001, the numbers were already dropping. Plus, the introduction of the Pacific Solution (Sept 2001) coincided with the removal of the Taliban from power in Afghanistan (Oct 2001). Leading up to this point, Afghanistan had been one of our major sources of asylum seekers (17% in 2001-01). Also, from 2001 to 2002 there was a 45% drop in refugee numbers worldwide. And when Gillard re-introduced it in 2012, it didn’t immediately slow the boats as Marles claimed last night. In fact, the number of boat more than doubled.
Secondly, even if (and it’s a big ‘if’) mandatory detention does deter would-be asylum seekers, is that something to be proud of? Sure, that might reduce the deaths at our doorstep, but do they just go somewhere else to die? Do they just attempt some other dangerous journey? Or a journey to some other dangerous country? Or do they just stay home and get murdered by their persecutors? Marles dismissed these claims last night as absolutely untrue, but he didn’t supply any verifiable evidence, nor has anyone else supplied any that I’m aware of.
Note that Marles also misleadingly positioned people who suggest our mandatory detention policy might simply cause asylum seekers to die elsewhere. He said people who argue this don’t believe deaths at sea are Australia’s responsibility. Again, disingenuous. Deaths at sea are our responsibility. But so too are deaths caused elsewhere by our policies.
And finally, to suggest that mandatory detention is the only solution to deaths at sea is patently absurd. The government spends billions on mandatory detention, with Labor’s blessing ($10b since 2007). If putting innocent people in jail is the only solution they could buy with $10b, they’re definitely the wrong people for the job. What about rescuing people at sea? What about processing people in Indonesia? And in the long term, what about diplomatic solutions to reduce the actual number of refugees (rather than military operations to increase them)?
On refugees, as on most things, Labor is just a watered-down version of Liberal
On my way home from the forum, I called my wife, and told her I shouldn’t have gone. But this morning, I’m glad I did. It reinforced for me how Labor is now just a watered-down version of Liberal. How their politicians are hypocritical, manipulative, disingenuous, evasive and dangerous. More importantly, it strengthened my resolve to campaign for better alternatives.
Liberal and Labor have passed their use-by date. Australia deserves better.