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Desperate enough to come to Australia

By Howard Glenn - posted Thursday, 11 May 2006

This week we expect details of the government's re-institution of detention camps outside Australia law for people desperate enough to seek asylum in Australia.

Without any principles to guide them, the Australian Government has finally to start facing the long anticipated “worst-case” scenario in asylum seeker policy: refugees from Pacific Island states getting in canoes or boats and heading for what they hope are safer shores - Australia.

Our obligations under the refugee convention have been stretched and distorted over recent years, with sustained mistreatment of refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq, with the excuse that they arrived by boat from Indonesia, and should have sought refuge there.


Our obligations under human rights treaties were abandoned, on the basis finally accepted by the High Court, that basic international human rights principles - like keeping children out of detention - didn't apply to humans who are subject to laws made under the “aliens” power in our constitution. A very Australian distortion - human rights laws apply to everyone except those who need them most.

Having abandoned these principles, developed through the liberal democratic tradition over decades, the Australian Government now casts around to find “Australian values” that all those who come here must learn and endorse. And seeks to appease a nation that has a very strong sense of what its values are - and refuse asylum to those who are persecuted by this value system.

One of the signs of the desperation of those seeking to flee conflict at home in Indonesia is that they head this way - to waters that are “unchartered” by the refugee convention or the major human rights instruments. Sure there are layers of pretence that we wrap around ourselves, we've signed treaties, produce glowing reports on our observance of them, and when criticised by international bodies, boldly assert the need to reform these bodies. But we all know the reality. And so does much of the rest of the world - including people in desperate straits.

As if the treatment of the East Timorese refugees wasn't bad enough, with a decade of refusal to even hear their claims for refugee status and consequently the denial of a secure place of sanctuary. The government now proposes to re-institute the Western world's worst practice - the Nauru detention camp, where hundreds of Afghan and Iraqi refugees waited for years outside the rule of law until political expediency demanded their claims be accepted.

The use of Nauru and Manus Island from 2001 to 2005 as processing centres for asylum seekers, where hundreds were held for years, before political developments demanded that they be let into Australia, was frankly a horrible experience for all involved.

The thought of going through this again, but this time without the small semblance of process afforded by co-operation from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, should give members of the government, serious pause. Particularly as there are alternatives that can be worked out through co-operation with international agencies and other governments.


Our fundamental obligation to those seeking asylum is to ensure they are not returned to situations where they are at risk of persecution or death. Taking a step back, the very fact people in our neighbourhood get into boats shows a failure of policy on a number of fronts.

But it is wrong to say that the refugee convention and human rights law combine to provide an obligation for all who arrive here to be settled in Australia. Nor is there an obligation to allow a base of operations for a resistance movement against a neighbouring country, formed from people who have fled here.

Alternative approaches must be explored, particularly knowing what we do know now about the costs, health impacts and the host of undesirable situations arising from the recent “Tampa”, Nauru and Manus Island experiences.

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About the Author

Howard Glenn leads lobby group Rights Australia Inc, was previously founder and national director of Australians for Just Refugee Programs, and brought the widest range of organisations and individuals together to challenge poor treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

Formerly CEO of the National Australia Day Council, he was responsible for modernising national celebrations and the Australian of the Year Awards, and involving communities across Australia in debates on reconciliation, republic and national identity.

Howard was an adviser to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Hawke-Keating Governments, and had key involvement with Indigenous education policy, the response to the deaths in custody Royal Commission and the establishment of the reconciliation process. Outside government he has extensive community sector involvement, currently on human rights, HIV-AIDS, drug and alcohol issues. When not at a computer, Howard is a middle distance runner and a surf lifesaver.

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