Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Robert Manne on a solution to boat arrivals - in the absence of compassion in Australia let's revisit Manus Island!

Robert Manne has reworked an earlier lecture in a piece on ABC's Unleashed today. Whilst I agree with his humanist assertions on an ideal approach to refugees arriving by boat, I question the logic of a reprise of the Manus Island facility in PNG. I made a few forays into the commentary area, as follows:

"I agree wholeheartedly with your first point re asylum seekers in the community. I was involved in the first wave of the Pacific Solution, which offered aid 'incentives' to GoPNG to re-activate the military base at Manus as a detention centre.

I visited said centre and was tasked to explore Manus Island for community based activities in health & education that AusAID could support as a way of oiling the wheels of the Provincial Govt. Aid to these areas had not been considered until the centre opened. The whole approach was under the table and pretty tacky. I was far from comfortable with the strategy.

There were other sleights of hand in terms of expenditures kept off the books of costs that were facility-related. The aging facility is by the water, with a mess for support staff and visitors, with conditions for the asylum seekers marginal at best in an extremely hot & humid place.

Manus is a relatively poor province of PNG, with high levels of youth unemployment. Doubtless the centre will be refurbished and substantial resources will be applied to its operation. This in itself can cause problems with surrounding peoples who are somewhat disadvantaged."

"I cannot believe the sanguine commentary here on the success of Nauru and TPVs. The great majority of detainees on Nauru were genuine refugees who now live in Australia and NZ. Our government spent a lot of treasure making that miracle work. People were persecuted without any foundation whatsoever. In the knowledge that the Pacific Solution was an expensive unsustainable dud, particularly given the parlous state of Nauru, the Howard govt. commissioned Christmas Island, which has turned out to be an even bigger dud. Refugees on TPVs lived a twilight existence of uncertainty and fear that they would be returned forcefully to their home countries. It was another form of mindless punishment of innocent human beings.

Refugee advocates rightly highlighted the bloody mindedness of this Catch 22 scenario hatched by Howard and chums. I had never seen a government so practiced in the art of pettiness. I managed the aid component of the Nauru solution; I was on the detention facility coordinating committee and Howard’s task force on ‘illegal arrivals’. I know of what I speak and my role in that cruel fiasco stirred me to examine Australia's performance in the arena of human rights.

What happened to that freedom loving social democracy built on universal human rights; a nation at ease with itself and welcoming to those who face persecution on political, religious or ethnicity grounds? Never existed, right?

We are in fact an uncompassionate society ready to disbelieve the legitimate claims of asylum seekers who didn’t stand in a non-existent queue of orderly people waiting for whichever repressive regime they are escaping to allow them to migrate. The silliness of this position overwhelms me at times.

Thankfully a good many decent Australians refuse to bow down to a majority opinion that tolerates human rights abuses.

I am reminded of a quote from Mahatma Gandhi:

"It is a superstition and ungodly thing to believe that an act of a majority binds a minority. Many examples can be given in which acts of majorities will be found to have been wrong and those of minorities to have been right. All reforms owe their origin to the initiation of minorities in opposition to majorities...So long as the superstition that men should obey unjust laws exists, so long will their slavery exist.""

"If you take the combined figure for PNG & Nauru I believe over 1,600 people were detained. Some 1,200 were settled in Australia and NZ as refugees. To our shame, NZ took a proportionally higher number when capacity and relative resources are considered. Some 480 returned to their source countries, many of whom took a measly DIMIA bribe to get out of the hell hole of detention. We now know many of those found themselves in harm's way yet again (see David Corlett's "Following Them Home").

As Susan Metcalf points out in her book on the Pacific Solution, Oxfam and A Just Australia estimate the cost (of the Pacific Solution) at more than $1 billion, with the $390m construction of the Christmas Island facility included in this figure. The long-term damage done to the human beings involved and to Australia cannot be calculated".

I can confirm that many of us who worked on the aid component of the PS invariably suffered deep anxiety & depression as a result. Public assets were misused to enable a ruthless politician to drive a wedge that won an election (arguably two elections) and that is still demeaning our body politic.

What does it say about the health of our democracy in the 21st century when a major political party has as the centrepiece of its election platform the punishment of refugees that arrive by boat? It is frankly disgusting."

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