Australia's new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. (Image via)
On Friday, Australia’s newly appointed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared that asylum seekers arriving on the country’s shores by boat would have their claim assessed in Papua New Guinea (PNG). If their claims are found to be legitimate, it is PNG where they will stay and not Australia. In an official statement, he said:
“Arriving in Australia by boat will no longer mean settlement in Australia. Australians have had enough of seeing people drowning in the waters to our north. Our country has had enough of people smugglers exploiting asylum seekers and seeing them drown on the high seas."
Despite claiming to put the safety and security of immigrants first, Rudd’s agenda has since been entirely discredited by seismic revelations that emerged on Tuesday. Rod St George, former manager at G4S – the security outfit that bungled the job of policing the London Olympics and is now in charge of the deportation operation in Australia – revealed that, during their detention in PNG, immigrants are being raped and abused by fellow detainees with the full knowledge of the staff.
"There was nothing that could be done for these young men who were considered vulnerable, which in many cases is just a euphemism for men who have been raped," he said, speaking about the site that he worked at in Manus, a province of PNG. "They just had to stay where they were."
That such a place should be considered appropriate permanent residence for some of the world’s most vulnerable people seems absurd – but apparently not to everyone. Earlier this year, VICE reported on the hellish conditions of the refugee detention centre in Nauru off the Australian coast – something that the government were fully aware of and seemed to condone. If opposition leader Tony Abbott is anything to go by, some parliamentary officials think immigrants deserve such treatment. That, in trying to protect their own lives and those of their families, these people – consisting largely of Hazaras from Afghanistan, Shias from Pakistan, Iranians, Iraqis, Kurds and Rohingyas, the stateless people of Burma – are behaving in a way that is “un-Christian”.
That might sound ridiculous, but it's hardly unexpected in a climate where it's thought of as perfectly OK to permanently deport refugees to a nearby developing country.
The refugee camp at Manus, Papua New Guinea. (Image via)
Unsurprisingly, the decision – which will see Australia peddle huge sums of money into the relatively poor PNG – was greeted with full support from the island's Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill. That said, it may also save the Australian government money, as they're currently forking out $2.3 billion (£1.5 billion) on 600 detainees held across other smaller islands. There is certainly financial gain to be made on both sides, but remove the economic considerations from the equation and the logic begins to fall apart.
Even without the discovery that immigrants are being abused at Manus, the choice of PNG as a long-term base for so many asylum seekers is still short-sighted, if not downright antagonistic.
PNG has a chequered human rights record. As a developing country, the statutes it has in place to protect these vulnerable asylum seekers are woefully flimsy. The country joined the UN in 1975, but in 2010 – after an investigation by representatives of the treaty – was asked urgently to sign the protocol against torture and the death penalty, as well as amend its legislation on filing complaints to the UN committee. To date, PNG has failed to come good on these requests and the country’s humanitarian status hangs in limbo. In addition to the USA already raising concerns over the treatment of women inside PNG, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Australia has admitted that “ethnic disputes continue to flare up around the country… quickly escalat[ing] into violent clashes”.
All of which culminates in the fact that even the country’s own people struggle to live there. As tensions with neighbouring Indonesia mount, the country faces its own emigration crisis. Jen Robinson – Human Rights Lawyer and Director of Legal Advocacy, Bertha Philanthropies – explains:
"PNG already has a refugee crisis, with more than 9,000 West Papuan refugees who have fled persecution from Indonesia-controlled West Papua and who remain, according to the UN, 'in need of durable solutions'. Ongoing political violence and persecution against West Papuans peacefully seeking their right to self-determination from Indonesia guarantees this number will continue to rise."
It’s unlikely that a country already suffering such strains will be able to cope with a sudden influx of displaced immigrants. What is likely is that we'll see similar scenes in PNG to those that took place in the Pacific island of Nauru this weekend (which Australia has also been paying to house its asylum seekers while their claims are being assessed).
The island republic – formerly known as Pleasant Island, with a landmass of just 21 square kilometres and a population of 10,000 – currently holds over 500 would-be Australian immigrants. On Sunday, asylum seekers sparked a riot that led to the burning of the detention facility where they're being held, causing £36 million worth of damage, as well as leading to 125 asylum seekers being held in police custody. It has been reported that over 1,000 Nauru men came out in support of the police and attempted to restrain inmates by wielding machetes and other weapons.
The exact cause of the protest remains unknown. The dismal conditions of the detention facility in Nauru undoubtedly played a part, but news of the legislation to permanently send asylum seekers to PNG will surely have added further fuel to the fire.
On all accounts, Rudd's PNG decision shows an almost unparalleled lack of sympathy, remorse or responsibility towards asylum seekers, compared to nearly all other developed states. In the words of Amnesty International Australia’s Refugee Campaign coordinator, Graeme McGregor, “The new plans to resettle all asylum seekers that are found to be refugees in PNG shows not only a complete disregard for asylum seekers but absolute contempt for legal and moral obligations. Mark this day in history as the day Australia decided to turn its back on the world’s most vulnerable people, closed the door and threw away the key.”
While dumping refugees in PNG may hold immediate benefits for the Australian government, it is also likely to spark long-term animosity between the two states. In a Guardian article written this week, Antony Loewenstein explained that since being granted its independence in 1975, PNG views Australia with scepticism and is frequently being forced to accept arrangements, such as the redirection of refugee boats, due to economic need.
Solidarity vigil outside an immigrant detention centre in Melbourne. (Image via)
The insistence by the Australian government to keep immigrants out of the country full stop has arrived as a result of several factors, including a sense of paranoia that the public harbour feelings of racial intolerance. The Australian federal election is taking place in September, where Rudd and Abbott will go head to head. Both are keen to assert their own firm stance on border control. Even Rudd’s predecessor as leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), Julia Gillard – a woman who stood firm against same-sex marriage – was resolute. She assured the public that an asylum seekers’ hunger strike to protests against their harsh treatment in Nauru earlier this year would “get them nowhere”.
It’s easy to see why, at a time of heightened political pressure, the memory the 2005 Cronulla riots might be at the forefront of politicians’ minds. Back then, 5,000 people gathered in a media-fuelled campaign to stop immigrants from supposedly carrying out violent crime against locals. What began peacefully soon resulted in the mob attack of an unsuspecting man of Arab appearance outside a hotel, followed by several similar violent incidents over the course of three days and nights. The Lebanese community took the hardest knock, with several young men being set upon. What had been the inevitable result of mounting tension between white youths and Middle Eastern immigrants became a momentous event in Australian history that alerted the world to the country’s problem with xenophobia and the bias against immigrants perpetuated by its media.
But those events are by no means reflective of the majority, as shown through several demonstrations held this year to force the government into taking a softer line on immigration. As Graeme McGregor says: “The vast majority of Australians are compassionate people who are willing to give asylum seekers a 'fair go' once they hear their personal stories and are aware of the true facts on the issue. Unfortunately, for years politicians have been using asylum seekers for political point-scoring and incorrectly labelling people who arrive by boat as 'illegal', when it is perfectly legal to seek asylum from persecution.”
Propaganda is being put before humanitarian law and this can only hinder Australia’s progress to achieving harmony and true multiculturalism. The events of last Friday hold devastating repercussions for the thousands of people risking their lives to escape oppressive regimes and forge a better life for themselves in a developed country. They also have the potential to destroy the lives of people living in Papua New Guinea, who haven’t the means or the infrastructure to fare the storm that's heading their way.
Follow Nathalie on Twitter: @NROlah
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