Friday, February 16, 2007

Australia's asylum seeker policy subject of SMH editorial

It is pleasing to see an SMH editorial condemn the appalling failure of the Howard Government's Pacific Solution (PS).

When I started this blog I was painfully aware of how little attention this brutish policy was receiving from mainstream media outlets.

Several Age journalists were an exception and have been diligent in charting the course of the PS iterations. This was encouraging for an erstwhile APS 'insider' such as myself, who had become increasingly distressed over what I considered to be the misuse of public sector resources underpinning the PS.

Refugee advocates have continued to beat on the doors of the country's conscience to awaken decent, fair-minded Australians to the cruelty being perpetrated in their name.

In today's editorial, entitled "Meanness has rarely been so open-handed", the SMH exposes the asylum seeker policies to a bit more public glare:

"THERE are a number of reasons to object to the way Australia deals with asylum seekers. First, of course, there is the lack of humanity. The detention of individuals for years in centres far from the Australian mainland is straightforward cruelty. Just how cruel is shown by the number of times long-term detainees attempt suicide. Cynics may accuse these forlorn figures of attention-seeking - and indeed the charge may well be true. Attention-seeking is understandable in their situation. The charge does not undermine their case, or void their right to justice. Asylum seekers should not be detained for long periods to await the outcome of their case. The pathetic case of Mohammad Faisal - imprisoned for five years on Nauru after being declared a security threat by ASIO, then released this month after ASIO thought better of its first finding - is only one of many examples where Australia has tried to act tough and has ended up just looking mean.

Even for those who see mandatory detention as somehow justified in the cause of border protection, there is a second, more pragmatic objection to the way Australia goes about things: cost. The cost of building the Christmas Island detention centre has risen 43 per cent in four years, to $396 million, Finance Department officials told a Senate estimates committee. That is a lot to pay for a holding pen, even if it eventually does hold 400 people. (Four people are currently in detention there.) It has been costing Australia $1 million a month to keep another man, Mohammed Sagar, in custody on Nauru; he has now been granted asylum in Scandinavia. The "Pacific solution" has been less utilised in recent years, and rightly so. The last budget provided for one of two centres on Nauru to close. The policy has been a low point in Australia's otherwise largely creditable immigration history, and should be phased out completely. Its cost to Australia in money and reputation has been too high."

There are other elements of the PS process that require closer scrutiny, including financial arrangements with Nauru politicians and officials during the first phase of implementation. I encourage journalists to continue exposing these policies to the full light of day.

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