Offshore processing: failing those we should protect | Law

Offshore processing: failing those we should protect

OPINION: Madeline Gleeson, The Law Society Journal, June 2016.

The human face of Australian immigration law can be hard to see, hidden away offshore. For almost four years it has been obscured behind the high walls of closely guarded detention centres in one of the most remote parts of Papua New Guinea (PNG) or on the far-flung island nation of Nauru where visa restrictions keep out all save a select few. The human face is hidden, but it is there.

In April 2016, Omid Masoumali, 23, set himself on fire in front of a group of UNHCR officials visiting Nauru. Video footage captures him lurching forward, ablaze. Other footage shows him pacing inside the Nauruan hospital, severely burnt and screaming uncontrollably. His distressed family is there. A witness vomits into a bucket. Two days later, Masoumali died in a Brisbane hospital.

Within a fortnight, another young man aged 26 would be dead on Nauru. The man checked in to the hospital where Omid had been just days earlier, then had a series of heart attacks and died before he could be evacuated.

These two join another pair of men in their 20s who have died as a result of their detention offshore, this time on Australia’s other offshore processing island – Manus Island in PNG.

In February 2014, 23-year-old Reza Barati was beaten to death during a riot at the Manus detention centre. Witnesses say he had been trying to run back to his room at the time to hide from the violence engulfing the centre. A group of men – mainly from PNG, but perhaps an Australian or New Zealander, too – had converged and attacked. Australian security guards later sobbed as they stood on a dark pier nearby, watching medics try to revive Reza at a makeshift triage centre. By then, there was nothing they could do.

Six months later, Hamid Khazaei, 24, also would succumb to a preventable death, after a bacterial infection from a cut on his leg was left untreated and spread to his bloodstream. Doctors on Manus had begun calling for an urgent medical evacuation as soon as they realised the gravity of his condition, but they were stonewalled or ignored by the Australian immigration department. By the time approval finally came through and Khazaei was loaded onto a plane bound for Australia, he was comatose and believed to be in the early stages of brain death. A witness said his body had swollen beyond recognition, and was completely covered up during the flight. When he landed in Queensland, Khazaei’s vital signs were deemed “not compatible with life”. A few days later, with the consent of his family, his life support was switched off.

The stories of these four young men sit in stark contrast to those of another group who sought asylum in Australia by boat, four decades earlier. On 26 April 1976, Lam Binh, 25, steered his leaky wooden fishing boat up and down the rugged coastline. Beside him stood his 17-year-old brother and three friends, aged 16, 17 and 25. In the hull below, three pumps worked valiantly to keep the rickety vessel afloat.

They had left Timor 16 days earlier, with nothing to guide them but instinct and a page torn from a school atlas. They were sure the lights and laughter drifting across the water were from Darwin, their destination lying just off the edge of the atlas page, but they could not see anywhere to land. And so they continued, rounding into Darwin Harbour at some point the next day, still unnoticed.

For hours, they coasted along until at last coming to the bustling wharf at Stokes Hill, where the young men found somewhere to dock and a fisherman to point them in the direction of the “immigration people”. When Australian government officials boarded boat KG4435, Lam Binh finally delivered the speech he had practised so many times before. As reported by Bruce Grant in The Boat People, Lam Binh said: “Welcome on my boat. My name is Lam Binh and these are my friends from South Vietnam and we would like permission to stay in Australia”. It was 27 April 1976. Australia had just received its first asylum seekers arriving by boat.

These five young men heralded the first wave of boats carrying people seeking asylum to Australia after the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975 and the establishment of communist regimes in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The Indochinese refugee crisis that followed saw more than three million people displaced from these countries over the next two decades. It would also become a period of unmatched openness and generosity in Australia’s treatment of people fleeing persecution in the region.

Rather than closing up in the face of mass displacement, Australia became more open – encouraging countries in South-East Asia to continue to grant asylum seekers temporary protection while expanding global resettlement programs. Between 1975 and 1981, Australia resettled almost 52,000 Indochinese refugees, most of whom were assessed by Australian officials in refugee camps in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, and flown to their new homes around the country. Together with the few who had chosen to come directly, risking the journey by boat, these refugees were let in, housed, clothed, fed and supported as free and permanent new members of Australian society

Few asylum seekers arriving by boat after this time would receive such a welcome. By 1989, asylum seekers arriving by boat without visas began to be detained while their claims for refugee status were processed, followed by the introduction of mandatory detention by the Keating Government in May 1992. Under the Howard Government, Australian immigration policies became even harsher. Temporary protection visas were introduced in place of the permanent ones that had been offered previously, naval operations began to turn back boats at sea, and offshore processing in the Pacific was introduced for the first time.

Australian immigration law and policy now are even more extreme. Boats are turned back more forcefully than before, with the full backing of domestic law (even if such conduct violates international law, including the law of the sea). A thick veil of secrecy hangs over everything. Whistleblowers are cowed into silence by threats of jail time.

Offshore processing, reinstated after a four year hiatus in 2012, now takes a more drastic form than ever before. Whereas previously there was some flexibility about resettlement – some people processed offshore came to Australia, others went elsewhere – Prime Minister Kevin Rudd changed everything on 19 July 2013. With just seven weeks to the Federal election, Rudd announced that no asylum seeker who arrived by boat from then on would be given the chance to settle in Australia. Offshore processing would continue and anyone found to be a refugee would have two options: settle in PNG (or another country that would take them) or go home.

This policy, which continues, for the first time in this country’s history closed off Australia completely to refugees arriving spontaneously at the border by sea. Responsibility for processing and settling these refugees supposedly shifted entirely to other countries in the region. Unsurprisingly, this has not worked.

A handful of men have tried to integrate in PNG, but a single success story is yet to emerge. Just four refugees were resettled elsewhere – a man and his teenage son to Canada (made possible only because his wife had been granted asylum there and was entitled to family reunification) and two to Cambodia. A further three refugees originally sent to Cambodia gave up and went home, despite the risks.

Meanwhile, the centres on Nauru and Manus have become gaping sinkholes into which four successive Australian governments have poured billions of dollars and a few thousand vulnerable lives. And for what?

There is no endgame. The refugees on Nauru must leave eventually, but there are no permanent resettlement countries on the table. The men on Manus refuse to stay in PNG, even if they are offered a place there. Australian policies have done nothing to address the growing number of displaced people in the region, or to create safe and legal channels for people to reach protection without having to get on a boat.

Offshore processing has been a complete failure. It is time to talk about alternatives.

Article from LSJ, June 2016, Issue 23, pp.24-25.