There are about 119 children currently detained with their families on Nauru – this number fluctuates, as children are often taken from the island temporarily for emergency medical treatment ; many of these children were born on Nauru.
Back in 2013, John Key, the then prime minister of New Zealand offered to break the Australian political stand-off and take 150 refugees each year from Australian detention centres. This offer has been renewed each year and was most recently re-confirmed by Jacinda Ardern at the Pacific Islands Forum held on Nauru in September.
Peter Dutton as Minister for Home Affairs and formerly as Immigration Minister has been a vocal opponent of accepting this gesture from New Zealand. At various times he has argued that should these asylum seekers go to New Zealand they would, once having gained New Zealand citizenship, seek to visit Australia through the back-door as he calls it. An argument that he doesn’t use against those asylum seekers already resettled in the USA – under the deal struck during Barack Obama’s presidency – which has resettled 183 people, including 15 children, according to Australia’s Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.
Dutton also, at various times introduces other spurious arguments including that resettling these folk in New Zealand will send a signal to people smugglers that the doors are now open to Australia via New Zealand and that the armada of vessels from Indonesia will launch imminently. Again, he doesn’t say that resettlement in the USA would act as a pull factor from Indonesia, I wonder why not ?
For Dutton the continued indefinite detention of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Islands appears to be a major form of demarcation for the coalition to use against the Labor party and so far it has worked for the Liberals but obviously not for the detainees (who they annoyingly call transferees : when does a transferee become a detainee, is five years enough ?). Labor, sadly, have been weak and indecisive throughout, being afraid to blink and allow Dutton to deliver the wedge that Labor are weak on border protection.
New Zealand have approached this whole debacle with an adult maturity that has been entirely absent in Australian politics in recent years and had we accepted the generous offer made by John Key back in 2013, all of the detained asylum seekers on both Nauru and Manus would by now be living new lives in New Zealand.
In the last few days before the Wentworth by-election Scott Morrison has been bending over backwards to accommodate any policy twist that will win favour with the voters in that electorate, ranging from the desperate dog-whistling to the Jewish community to offering a glimmer of hope for the children and their parents on Nauru.
Morrison has flagged his intention to accept New Zealand’s long-standing offer on the condition that the Senate passes a law banning the resettled refugees from ever gaining any visa to visit Australia. Labor have said that whilst they have not received a briefing from the government, they consider that the lifetime visa ban is “ridiculous” and not necessary to enact the New Zealand deal.
New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Winston Peters also condemned the visa-ban policy on Wednesday, warning it was requiring New Zealand to create “second-class citizens” in his country, something that New Zealand would never do.
So, to get Morrison across the line and have the children and their families off Nauru – we know that New Zealand officials have been preparing for the evacuation, in case the deal goes ahead – either our new prime minister has to drop his demand that New Zealand citizens (who were once asylum seekers) be banned from ever visiting Australia. Or Labor cave-in to his demand and pass the legislation which in office they could repeal. But to do so would mean that New Zealand would also have to cave-in – and agree to a lifetime ban on those settled in New Zealand from ever visiting Australia. A ban that would not affect those resettled in the USA or elsewhere we are told.
So, we have a Mexican stand-off : a confrontation between two parties in which no strategy exists that allows either party to go forward or backwards. As a result, the participants maintain a strategic tension, which remains unresolved until some outside event makes it possible to resolve it. Perhaps the outside event we are looking for is the Wentworth by-election or perhaps it is the plight of the children or perhaps it is the utter frustration and exasperation of the Australian people that their elected representatives appear unable or unwilling to resolve this impasse.
Meanwhile, the chief medical officer for contractor International Health and Medical Services on Nauru, Nicole Montana, was arrested, handcuffed and has now been deported from the island on Wednesday in unexplained and mysterious circumstances.
It is my fervent hope that by the time this article is published it will be obsolete and that these children and their parents will be on their way to New Zealand and a new life. Then we can perhaps believe that Dutton’s log-jam has been breached and we can humanely and rationally commence resettlement of the remainder of these unfortunate people : we shall see !