Harshness before sense? The PNG solution

| July 23, 2013

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has announced that asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat will be processed in Papua New Guinea and resettled there, if found to be refugees. Binoy Kampmark explains why he doesn’t agree with this hardline approach.

This is patently sinister. Manus Island in Papua New Guinea is destined under the “regional agreement” between PNG and Australia to become an expanded detention centre which may house upwards of 3000 individuals. These individuals might well have been processed quietly through Australian channels by Australian authorities. If it had been news, it should have been embedded in the back pages. But this Labor government is desperate. Very desperate. So much so that anyone without a visa who arrives in Australia will never (emphasis on the word never) settle in Australia.

Those are the words of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Rudd has made it clear that the Refugee Convention, ratified in 1951, is an anachronism on stilts. Nothing new there – he parrots a long standing lament of wealthy states who would rather wish the convention might be done away with – or at the very least “revised”.

Much of this behaviour on the part of the Prime Minister is probably histrionics – to change the convention through the channels of the United Nations would require General Assembly approval. Poorer states are unlikely to be joining richer states in attempting to curb global flows of individuals – for them, the richer the state, the greater the burden by necessity.

Hence, we face the next disturbing rationale. If the convention can’t be changed, it won’t be heeded. Naturally, one way of doing so is to re-label those who arrive in Australia in advance, a case of premature adjudication if ever there was one. Ignore the refugee advocates and the professionals as much as possible – what would they know? Foreign Minister Bob Carr has been most typical of this, claiming that those getting on boats and heading for Australia are “economic” migrants.

The response to Carr has been strident. Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs has found little basis to the claim. Former liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser is up at arms at the suggestion, calling Carr’s claims “total nonsense” and “fantasy”. “I think a lot of people [who] might have felt some relief that Kevin Rudd was back in charge will now have that very heavily tempered by Senator Carr’s most intemperate remarks.”

Applicants for asylum assessed and found to be legitimate refugees are entitled to stay in the country that duly processes them. To send them offshore, as it were, constitutes a violation of its principles. It amounts, as some advocates have rightly noted, to an “outsourcing” of the burden imposed on a country.

Furthermore, let’s consider the country in question: Papua New Guinea is a developing nation and in structural and economic terms as close to a failed state as any in the Asia Pacific. It is known for producing refugee applicants, not recipients. The Australian Refugee Review Tribunal has actually granted refugee status to people leaving the country on grounds of persecution. To speak of equitable “burden sharing” in this context, the term used by states in the European Union, is nonsense.

The “PNG Solution” will also be a disaster on another level. Not only will it violate a key principle of refugee law – that refugees cannot be sent to a place where they are put at risk – it will create another enormous social problem. Hundreds of Iranians, processed on PNG soil, is a recipe for social catastrophe.

As Marina O’Sullivan of the Castan Centre for Human Rights explains, domestic violence is rife. Ethnic tensions are ever present. The “human rights” infrastructure is simply not in place. Then there is that matter of the High Court, which found in 2011 that arrangements of this sort violated international refugee obligations.

Should he win the elections, will Rudd care? This is hard to know given the distinct hollowness of Australian politics. Australia is a land jam packed with regulations, controls and a mania for “security”. Its electoral system, at least in so far as it determines the fates of governments, hinges on marginal seats in the outer suburbs – the “Rooty Hill” factor. But this policy, unless it is challenged in the High Court, risks making Australia not merely an inept international citizen, but a callous one whose words at international law are empty sentiments rather than genuine policy.