What will the new parliament deliver for people seeking asylum?

JULY 14 2016


By Andrew Hamilton SJ


When we reflect on what might happen after the recent Federal Election, it is tempting to begin with politics as a game – party strategies, factions and so on. But any consideration of the effect of the Election on people who seek protection should focus on the lives of people who are affected and on what respect for their humanity demands.

For people seeking asylum the present situation is dire. Australia’s policy leaves tens of thousands of people diminished in mind and body, fearful, separated from families, often deprived of freedom and unable to work or contribute to society.

Some 13,000 people seeking asylum live in Indonesia. They wait for a nation to accept them, dependent on the hospitality of a developing nation, often separated from their relatives. Another 1,300 people who came to Australia after 18 September 2013 are held on Manus Island or Nauru. Because their fate is designed to deter other people boarding boats to seek protection from Australia, they live in harsh conditions, have been subject to abuse, and suffer from mental illness and despair that leads many to harm themselves. Of particular concern are children held in these poor and uncertain situations. 267 people now live temporarily in Australia after receiving medical care or bearing children, but are liable to return to Nauru.

Around 1,800 people are also held in detention centres in Australia, while others live in community detention. Many of these have been detained for over two years, waiting for their case to be processed or for a final decision. They have nothing meaningful to do and many suffer from depression, traumatised by what they have suffered both in the nations from which they fled and in Australia.

Almost forgotten in discussion of people seeking asylum are the 19,000 people who arrived in Australia before late 2013 and who live in the community on bridging visas. Processing of their cases was halted for a long time and has only now restarted. The process can now lead only to temporary protection and leaves little scope for review. With limited support, often restricted in their right to work, they are constantly anxious about their own future and that of their families.

And finally, we should include the 18,000 people due to come this year to Australia on humanitarian visas and the 20,000 Syrian refugees whom the Coalition Government promised to receive in Australia.  After a year only a trickle have arrived.

All these people, some visible through the media and others forgotten, make a claim on our hearts to our fundamental relationship as fellow humans, and to our responsibility as a national to show compassion to those seeking our protection. All will want to know if the election will bring them good news. That will depend on whether the major parties will cooperatively review our policies, or if will again compete with one another to look toughest against refugees.

The clear dissatisfaction of the electorate towards the negative party politics might favour cooperation. But the self-interested and bullying government has become the norm, and will be hard to shake off.  Certainly the militarisation of the Immigration Department in the Australian Border Force, which has made the life of people in detention more demeaning, suggests that the Government’s approach to people seeking protection will be combative and unyielding. A culture of brutality is becoming ingrained.

Among the different groups mentioned before, it is hard to see any good news for those stranded in Indonesia. They are out of sight and out of mind, and they could hope for encouragement from Australia only if it were accepted that refugees are an international and regional responsibility. That enlightened view seems a foreign concept in Fortress Australia.

There may be some room for hope for the people languishing on Nauru and Manus Island. Their situation has been intractable because both major parties had a part in establishing and developing the scheme. But at a time of financial stringency it is enormously costly to maintain these centres, and the mistreatment and deteriorating condition of the people there draws increasing concern in Australia and internationally. When the boats have been stopped, too, the argument that punishing people by sending them off-shore is necessary to deter people smugglers is specious.

In addition, now that the PNG Supreme Court has declared detention illegal, Australia’s regional arrangement will need to be reviewed. If the Coalition and Labor can agree that Manus Island and Nauru have achieved whatever result was hoped for and that it is too costly in terms of human lives, money and national reputation to continue, people there may find some hope. If that is too much to hope for, at least it is possible that the plight of families with young children will be addressed, and that the 267 people remaining in Australia after medical treatment will not be sent back. But this would depend on bipartisan agreement.

Cost cutting may lead to the release into the community of more people detained in Australia and to the extension of work rights. But it is unlikely that they will receive more support or that those found to be refugees will receive permanent protection visas. Nor should we expect the Syrian refugees to come in great numbers.

So, all in all, the close election result is not good news for people who seek protection. But it does offer possibilities.  When it comes to people’s lives, even small blessings are worth pressing for. To move a mountain we must start by picking up one rock at a time.