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Malcolm Turnbull has sunk to a new low with refugee folly

Malcolm Turnbull, in his 12 months in office, has now repudiated virtually everything he once stood for. He has done this because he has concluded that in order to hang onto his job, after his near-death experience in the July election, he must now appease the mad right of his party in every domain.

This is both bad policy and bad politics: on policy, the far right in Australia represent the worst of the xenophobic, nationalist and protectionist wave that we now see raging across Europe and America; while on politics, appeasement of political thugs like Abbott, Dutton, Abetz, Andrews and, depending on which way the wind is blowing, Morrison, only embolden the far right to demand more, not less.

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Asylum seekers to be banned for life from entering Australia

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull outlines plans to ban asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island who came by boat from ever entering Australia. Vision courtesy of ABC News 24

This is what lies at the heart of Turnbull's latest proposal to introduce laws that would ban someone from ever entering Australia under any visa category if that person had previously sought to enter by boat. This measure is about the politics of symbols, designed to throw red meat at the right, including the Hansonite insurgency, and to grovel to the broad politics of xenophobia. Turnbull, once an intelligent, global citizen, knows better.

In 2008, my government abolished the Pacific Solution. We relied instead on Christmas Island. We pursued a policy of comprehensive regional co-operation under the Bali Process. We also abolished temporary protection visas.

During 2009-10, security circumstances changed rapidly in the region: the rolling disaster of the decision to invade Iraq led to a massive exit of asylum seekers; the new regime under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saw a fresh exodus from Iran; followed by a major civil war in Sri Lanka with Tamils fleeing from persecution. We were faced with a rapidly increasing caseload, the scourge of people smugglers, large-scale drownings at sea and the enduring challenge of separating out economic migrants from genuine refugees.

After 2010, the Gillard government changed tack. It sought to negotiate offshore processing arrangements with East Timor and later Malaysia. These failed. Then in August 2012, the government announced the reopening of offshore processing in Manus and Nauru. The government also increased the number of refugees we would take from the UNHCR "global pool" of refugees from 13,000 to 20,000. Nonetheless, in the first half of 2013, the UNHCR delivered reports criticising the treatment of refugees, which the government sought to respond to.

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After I returned to office in June 2013, we changed the agreement with PNG in a number of critical ways.

  • We obtained the agreement of the PNG government to process those arriving in Australia by boat.
  • PNG agreed to resettle successful applicants for refugee status in PNG, or in third countries.
  • PNG agreed in article 7 of the agreement to remove its long-standing reservations under its instrument of ratification of the Refugees Convention concerning the treatment of asylum seekers: in employment, housing, education, freedom of movement, non-penalisation for illegal entry or stay, expulsion and naturalisation. This was critical in dealing with legitimate UNHCR concerns on the rights of refugees and asylum seekers in PNG. Furthermore, in my discussions with the PNG government I said an acceptable time for resolving each case should be six to 12 months. And treatment should accord with UNHCR standards.
  • Processing of asylum seekers' claims would not be restricted to the Manus facility, but would in time involve a range of centres (up to seven) across the PNG mainland. The arrangement also embraced community-based housing options.
  • Article 3 makes explicit that this agreement was to be for one year only, and would thereafter be subject to annual review.

The agreement was challenged in the High Court in 2014. The court upheld its legality. Nonetheless, the core fact remained that it was explicitly designed as a one-year agreement. Public service officials had warned us of a new wave of people smuggling activity. This July 2013 policy was conceived as a mechanism to break the gathering momentum of the people-smuggling industry, the proliferation of drownings, and an ability to reassess the external security environment after 12 months.

I made it clear that under the agreement "any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees" but any extension of the agreement beyond a year would be reliant on the annual reviews that would have examined both Australia's and PNG's treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

Abbott won the 2013 election, with Labor's "softness on asylum seekers" one of his core electoral attacks during the campaign. Neither Abbott nor Turnbull have honoured the refugee protections outlined in the 2013 agreement because it was not in their domestic political interests to do so. And given the subsequent reports by the UNHCR, the Australian Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International and the 2016 determination of the PNG High Court, there is no way that the PNG agreement as administered by the Coalition government should have been renewed, unless the government was prepared to make radical changes, which they weren't.

The differences between my government's approach to asylum seekers policy and what we have seen under the Abbott/Turnbull government are clear.

  • They were prepared to junk the principle of "non-refoulement", which lies at the core of the Refugees Convention. We did not. In fact, we were attacked by Abbott throughout the 2013 election for refusing to do so.
  • They have failed miserably in the implementation of the July 2013 agreement, including its core provisions on the proper treatment of asylum seekers and refugees required under international law, and the agreement itself, including the inhumane length of time they have kept refugees in detention, as well as the failure to develop of community-based reception arrangements on the PNG mainland, not just at Manus;
  • They have deliberately misrepresented the 2013 agreement as permanent, rather than as a temporary one-year measure, which is explicitly stipulated in the agreement itself. The PNG PM has also stated the 2013 agreement was designed as a temporary measure.
  • They have sought to negotiate a failed agreement with Cambodia at a cost of $55 million, and with zero effect, to deal with their failure to resettle refugees from Manus and Nauru.
  • The government cruelly refused the offer from New Zealand to resettle 150 refugees annually from Manus and Nauru, when the 2013 agreement explicitly provides for resettlement to third countries.
  • Where I recommended increasing our annual refugee intake above 20,000 if the regional resettlement agreement proved successful, after taking office they almost halved the existing 20,000.

Turnbull's latest legislative folly should be opposed. I have kept silent on Australian domestic policy debates for the past three years. But this one sinks to new lows. It is pure politics designed to appease the xenophobes. It is without any policy merit in dealing with the real policy challenges all countries face today in what is now a global refugees crisis. And it does nothing to help those refugees left to rot for more than three years, who should be resettled now.

Kevin Rudd is a former prime minister.

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