Editorial – The Age – 19 July 2018 — 6:21pm
The plight of the 1600-odd asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru has been a stain on Australia for more than a decade. Recent progress should not hide the reality that there is more work to do. The Age reported yesterday on the positive results of the deal in 2016 between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and President Barack Obama that has already sent about 350 refugees to the United States. Yet there are also questions about how the deal sits with Australia’s policy of deterring people smugglers.
After five years in detention on Nauru, a young Rohingya refugee, Mohammad Noor, was sent to the US and found work in Salt Lake City as a fork-lift driver. Even though Australia would not accept Mr Noor, a network of Australians has formed in the US to try to help him and other refugees from Nauru and Manus resettle over there.
Australia’s policy of turning back the boats and refusing to accept boat arrivals, even proven refugees, has thankfully stopped the flow of asylum seekers and with it the deaths at sea. Yet this comes at the moral cost of imposing indefinite detention on hundreds of innocent people, including many children. Many here in Australia would show the same compassion as those helping Mr Noor in the US if they could. Even the Turnbull government has allowed some asylum seekers here on compassionate grounds for medical treatment or sent them to Taiwan.
The federal government was offered this year a chance to resettle more refugees from the camps. But it rejected New Zealand’s offer to accept 150 people, on the grounds that they would, as New Zealanders, have the right to move here.
As Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said at the time, however, if the goal is deterrence it is not clear why shipping refugees to the US, the richest country in the world and the land of freedom, is any more effective than shipping them to New Zealand or indeed here.
The fact is that Mr Noor’s attempt to seek asylum by coming to Australia has ultimately been a success, albeit not in the way he originally expected. He is no doubt telling his relatives in Bangladesh that now.
There are no easy solutions. Despite German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s initial welcome of Syrian refugees, Europe is now putting up hard borders almost as redoubtable as Australia’s to stop migration by boat from the Middle East and Africa.
In the US, too, President Donald Trump tightened the screws but abandoned an attempt to discourage asylum seekers by separating children from their parents. Hopefully the US will quickly process and accept all the remaining refugees on Manus and Nauru before the toll in suicides and other deaths rises.
If this drags on, the moral cost will grow. If all else fails, it may be necessary to bring some of the refugees here, just as John Howard eventually allowed many taken from the Tampa freighter to come to Australia 15 years ago.
Politicians will have to find a discreet way of doing this without reopening the bitter political battles of the past decade. Refugee advocates, too, will have to drop legalistic demands and accept a gradual and pragmatic approach.
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