The ALP has succeeded in setting an international benchmark for cruelty. In a move that has outflanked to the right most of the Liberal Party, Kevin Rudd has completely trashed the UN convention on the rights of refugees.

Asylum seekers who come by boat will never be settled in Australia. The government plans to expand the existing detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island and build more in Papua New Guinea (PNG). It claims that it will find “appropriate accommodation” for refugees once their claims are assessed. “Appropriate” will resemble a hell hole.

As Greens Senator Scott Ludlum stated: “This is a proposal so offensive that even Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott hadn’t thought of it.” This new low for Labor is beyond anything the refugee rights movement could have imagined. It is worse even than Tony Abbott’s idea of towing boats back to Indonesia.

The ALP has moved firmly into the realm of the reactionary right, harking back to when it was the party of the White Australia policy. The policy is intrinsically cruel. It targets those who have suffered the harshest of persecutions; those who have no option but to run and to keep running until they find protection.

Meanwhile Australia will still continue its bid to be on the UN Human Rights Council. Like war criminals such as Mahendra Rajapaksa, president of Sri Lanka responsible for the genocide of an estimated 80,000 Tamils, Rudd wants to be the respected statesman mouthing humanitarianism. Sending refugees to PNG is a continuation of the persecution they have already suffered.

A hell hole for refugees

PNG is one of the most impoverished countries in the world. It is unable to provide housing, healthcare or basic education for much of the population. Thirty-seven percent of its people live below the poverty line. It has a GDP per capita of less than $3,000, compared with over $70,000 in Australia. It is ranked 168 in the world in terms of life expectancy. Lethal water-borne parasites, malaria and diseases like cholera, tuberculosis, typhoid and hepatitis are rife in PNG. Many strains of these diseases have become drug resistant.

The Australian government’s own travel advice warns visitors to exercise extreme caution due to the high levels of violent crime such as “car jackings, armed robbery and sexual assaults including gang rape”.

It also advises that “medical evacuation is the only option for serious illness or injury”.

Conditions for refugees already transferred to PNG’s Manus Island are appalling. The UNHCR released a damning report on the state of the detention centre after a monitoring visit in June. The agency noted that it is “deeply concerned by the ongoing deprivation of freedom of the asylum seekers in the Centre”.

“The current PNG policy and practice of detaining all asylum-seekers…on a mandatory and indefinite basis without an assessment…and without being brought promptly before a judicial or other independent authority amounts to arbitrary detention that is inconsistent with international human rights law”, it said.

The report also noted that “all asylum seekers on Manus Island displayed apparent signs of anxiety and depression”.

PNG is one of the most unsuitable and harshest places on the planet to resettle people who have already experienced the worst traumas imaginable. But then that is the point.

We have to act

The government’s actions have provoked anger. Immediately after the government’s announcement snap rallies were held around the country. They showed that there is potential to rebuild the refugee campaign. With less than one day’s notice, nearly 1,000 turned out in Sydney, up to 800 in Melbourne, and several hundred in Perth on 20 July. The following day over 200 protested in Brisbane and 500 in Adelaide.

More protests are now being organised for the coming weeks and days. Activists have to grab the opportunity to draw in new layers of people who are outraged and want to do something to challenge the government’s racist agenda.