Drivers crossing Commonwealth Bridge around lunchtime on Sunday might be confused to see hundreds of people carrying placards displaying the number eight.
The reason is that this will mark the eighth anniversary of a refugee policy introduced by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2013.
''As of today, asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia," he said. Instead, they would be sent to Manus Island or to Nauru.
Although Rudd later claimed the arrangement was only meant to last 12 months, there are at least a dozen statements from him on the record that emphasise the intended permanent nature of the exclusion of these people from Australia.
The announcement was an attempt to save at least some of Labor's electoral furniture from Tony Abbott's campaign, which emphasised the slogan "Stop the Boats". Following the smashing victory by Abbott that September, the Coalition government happily adopted the policy of permanent exclusion and, under three successive prime ministers, has relentlessly prosecuted it to this day.
As a result, about 3100 people seeking asylum in Australia were sent to detention centres on Manus Island in PNG and to Nauru. Of these, 240 remain in limbo in PNG and Nauru, and around 90 languish in detention here in Australia - even after eight long years. Thousands of others exist here on temporary visas, which do not allow an application for reunion with their families or to leave the country to see them and be able to return.
The human cost of the last eight years has been high. Lives have been lost through murder by guards, suicide and medical neglect. Almost every organisation of Australian healthcare professionals - from the AMA down - has condemned the policy as producing serious mental and physical health problems. The indefinite nature of this detention - which, unlike a prison sentence, has no end in sight and does not allow those held to cross off the days to freedom - has been a particularly cruel punishment. A Senate inquiry in late 2019 heard from doctors who had audited 581 people in detention, and said 91 per cent of those audited had serious mental health problems, while 97 per cent had significant physical health problems.
A 2020 study by three University of NSW academics who interviewed health professionals who had treated asylum seekers in detention produced quotes such as: "It was like being punched, repeatedly ... being there. It was just shock after shock ... I'm not easily shocked ... [but] nothing prepared me for this."
Many felt personally tainted by being involved with the system. One said: "Of course, I felt for the refugees but the ... strongest feeling was of contamination with an evil process ... I just couldn't do it."
Australia's reputation has suffered. Almost every international and domestic body concerned with human rights - from the United Nations Human Rights Council to the Australian Human Rights Commission - has attacked the policy.
The ALP seems terrified that if it opposes the permanent exclusion provision, or other key elements of the government's Operation Sovereign Borders, it will again be wedged. But it remains an open wound for them. While most polls over the past few years show an almost even split on whether the asylum seekers detained should be settled in Australia, Labor voters are much more likely to think they should be. Anecdotally, it is clear that a large majority of ALP members would support this.
Politicians often sell policy by declaring there is no alternative to it - Margaret Thatcher's famous "TINA". In this case, it is suggested that, without these harsh policies, the boats would restart, and more lives would be lost at sea. But Australia's own record in dealing with refugees should show that this is false. While not perfect, Australia's policies in dealing with the Indochinese refugee crisis from the mid-1970s should provide a start for a better policy. In total, we took over 185,000 Indochinese refugees - but only about 60 boats came with about 2000 people. The reason was that refugee applications were processed in countries of transit - such as Malaysia and Thailand - and those successful were flown here. The good international reputation built in this way created the possibility of a multilateral solution, involving other developed countries. This is precisely what we did not do during the Rudd-Gillard years.
It has always been possible to develop a refugee policy which is both humane and rational. The past eight years have shown the terrible cost of not doing so. With another federal election looming, can the ALP find the courage to offer an end to the injustices it initiated eight years ago?
- John Minns is an emeritus professor in politics and international relations at the ANU and a member of the Refugee Action Campaign in Canberra.