Author and journalist David Marr made an interesting observation on the ABC’s Insiders program last Sunday. He suggested Australians might be willing to countenance the unbelievable cruelty being exacted upon asylum seekers at Manus Island and Nauru if they thought it was a one-off effort that would bring an end to the boat people risking their lives to come to Australia. David concluded, however, that if this was what people thought, it was a false expectation. He was certain that the boat people would not stop coming, not now, not ever; and he is right.
If Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison think news of unbelievable cruelty at Manus Island and Nauru detention centres will filter through to those who are seeking to find another country to live will succeed, they are wrong. Why? Because always there will be other ways for people smugglers to continue their trade and adapt to changing circumstances. That is what business people do. And always there will be people who do not hear the message and still come, believing that their efforts will be rewarded. As long as there are 40 million people either displaced or stuck in refugee camps around the world, there will always be those who lose faith in the likelihood of receiving genuine help. They will simply take matters into their own hands and try another way. And who can blame them? The worldwide management of the refugee problem by the UNHCR is being woefully mishandled as is the selfishness of individual countries that have the wealth to absorb these, the most disadvantaged of the world’s citizens. The management is what needs to be reviewed and that is something that cannot be left to the whim of mean-spirited individuals in power; especially individuals with a political agenda. Last Tuesday’s Dateline program on SBS proved that. What unbelievable cruelty.
How long will it be before public outrage forces a closure of Manus Island and Nauru? Is it likely that the last outbreak will see no more asylum seekers sent to Manus? Or will the determination of the Prime Minister and his Immigration Minister see that the only way to ensure the success of Operation Sovereign Borders is to maintain this unbelievable cruelty for the foreseeable future?
The Immigration Minister proudly claims that no boats have arrived for some 70 days. But that doesn’t mean they have stopped coming. The proof of that can be seen in the navy intercepting them and transferring them to orange lifeboats and forcing them back to Indonesia, a strategy that cannot continue indefinitely. Put simply, they are still coming but not arriving.
Already, you can be sure, people smugglers are dreaming up new ways to continue their trafficking. Think of the relatives and friends of the dozens of people injured at Manus Island and what they would likely tell others about trying to reach Australia? Will they say to their loved ones, “don’t go”? I suspect not. More likely they will say: “don’t go that way.” So, people smugglers will continue to find ever new and more creative ways to enter into Australia. The flood will continue.
So, to pursue David Marr’s thoughts, one should ask how long Australians will tolerate this cruelty before their conscience forces a change in their thinking. Would another violent outbreak like the one that saw the death of Reza Berati be enough, or maybe more riots? Could the revelations that unaccompanied minors may have witnessed the riots be sufficient?
This week the PNG Catholic Bishops Conference issued a statement calling for the centre at Manus to be closed. A similar call from the Australian Bishops would be a step in the right direction. The PNG Bishops statement said it was concerned that the “rhetoric of a righteous campaign actually seemed to be a matter of political convenience.” The statement also said, “Arrangements for the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre do not meet international protection standards and the present situation on Manus is likely to lead to increased levels of psychosocial harm.” If the Bishops can see that so easily what is wrong with the majority of Australians? Nationals Senator John ‘Wacka’ Williams says they should be grateful for being there. Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison has announced that monthly forums will be set up between Australia and PNG aimed at denying asylum seekers entry to Australia. That seems to suggest the Australian government’s intention is to continue with the cruelty. One would have thought that a predominantly Catholic federal cabinet would be willing to listen to the findings of a Catholic Bishops conference. But it appears not.
If a well-argued case can be established to show that this policy will fail, on what moral, ethical or even economic grounds can the government continue its practice? Or is it being employed for another reason? Is it nothing more than political ploy? If we can stop the boats and save a life that is a good thing, but if the original intention was simply to stop them coming because it was considered a vote winner, that is inexcusable. So, what will it take for this brutality to be a vote loser? Thinking that we can stop the flood of refugees while 40 million wait in camps around the world is foolish. In 1998 former Prime Minister Bob Hawke once said we have to move on from thinking we are the lucky country and become the clever country. There is nothing clever about what is happening today. As the statement issued by the PNG Bishops says, “Detaining people against their will in PNG, even if it works as a deterrent, is not a just solution worthy of a great nation otherwise proud of its human rights record.”
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