The Pacific Solution is septicaemic and threatening the political life of the Coalition. Legitimate refugees and failed asylum seekers languish on Manus and Nauru desperately waiting for resettlement.
By Roman Quedvlig
The much-vaunted US deal is turning slowly with the anticipated uplift of 1250 refugees failing to reach even half of that target. The level of mental ill-health among both refugees and asylum seekers has reached an appalling state.
Nauru detainees should go to NZ: Shorten
“Those kids should be able to receive treatment as a matter or priority,” says Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, urging Australia to accept the offer from New Zealand to resettle those on Nauru.
It’s time to get them off Manus and Nauru. There is no longer any advantage to keeping them there, except to the host countries, which have been living off the largesse of the Australian taxpayer for five years. Even the mantric justification of “preventing drownings at sea” is no longer valid. The desired deterrent effect is well and truly seared into the psyche of people smugglers and asylum seekers – if you try to get to Australia by boat, you’ll be intercepted and taken to a hell hole in the Pacific for at least five years. This has deterred all but the occasional probing venture.
It’s what the Coalition does next which can make or break that deterrent effect, influence its prospects of retaining government, and either redeem its international reputation or further corrode it.
Bringing all of those who don’t make it to the US to mainland Australia is an unpalatable option for the Coalition. First, it will feel like buckling, which is not within the political character of either Peter Dutton or the hardened conservatives of the party.
Second, it would start eating away at the unassailable “they will never come to Australia” narrative – it is not inconceivable that a few adventurous asylum seekers, spurred into recklessness by the twin pull factors of that policy shift and a Federal election, would sacrifice five years of their life on Manus or Nauru in the hope of eventually getting to Australia. For this reason, permanent settlement here can’t be part of the solution.
The Coalition’s desperate attempt to assuage the chorus of outrage by floating the idea of accepting New Zealand’s offer to take 150 refugees a year is too little (there are about 1500 people on Manus and Nauru) and too late. Even if it manages to pass the Bill with support of Labor, the NZ solution is only a band aid on this weeping sore.
An alternative model is available to either the Coalition or as a compromise solution for the divided Labor factions. Activists won’t like it because it not the overt act of compassion they’re seeking from the government. Refugees and asylum-seekers won’t like it because it’s not a ticket to the land of milk and honey for which they’ve been yearning. Government agencies won’t like it because it means a lot of work and accountability. Papua New Guinea and Nauru won’t like it because they’ll lose money. Nevertheless, it can be the circuit breaker which Australian politics wants and which refugees and asylum seekers need.
The recently emptied Christmas Island detention centre is a large facility with the capacity to take up to 2000 detainees and house them in various security settings, including an open centre arrangement if necessary. The Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation complex is also a large precinct with a range of detention settings ranging from residences with virtually no security to a high-security compound.
Single men can be air-lifted to Christmas Island and accommodated while their immigration or resettlement status is resolved. It may take some years, but in the interim they’ll be under Australian care. Psychological diagnoses and welfare programs can be established on Christmas Island far more easily, and at much less cost, than either Manus or Nauru.
All of the remaining families, single women and unaccompanied minors can be air lifted to the MITA where their residential and mental health needs can be triaged. It is feasible for most families to be then outplaced into the community while their immigration or resettlement status is resolved. Similarly, it may take some years yet to resolve every case, but in the interim they’ll be under Australian care at a much lesser cost.
None of this suggests these people will ultimately be settled in Australia, but the imperative has now moved beyond mere compassion to a question of humanity. One single act of decency to relocate them from perdition to purgatory will not prompt an immediate flood of boats. It may encourage some exploratory ventures, but so will the upcoming federal election and one can rest assured that Operation Sovereign Borders will be fielding its strongest team in this period to maintain the “ring of steel”. Surely now is the time to is to act to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number? The worst that can happen is some boats arrive and a fresh cohort is transferred to the off shore processing centres as the clock restarts, but in the mean time we avert a mental health catastrophe.
Roman Quaedvlieg was commissioner of the Australian Border Force.
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald – Friday 19 October 2018.