Endless cruelty to refugees must stop

The Morrison government has indicated that it will transfer all refugee children and their families detained on Nauru to Australia for medical treatment by Christmas. But don’t start celebrating.

While the announcement by George Brandis, Australia’s ambassador to the UK, was welcomed by many as an indication that the Liberals are softening their stance on asylum seekers, the government’s actions betray that earnest hope. The Coalition continues to find cruel and degrading ways of humiliating asylum seekers and is helped by the support it receives from the ALP.

Prime minister Scott Morrison says that the government has been quietly getting on with the job of moving asylum seekers from Nauru to Australia and has done so without “showboating”. 

This is a flat-out lie. While the number of those transferred from Nauru has increased sharply since the middle of October, only 49 of the 135 people brought to Australia in that time have come here without legal intervention by advocates or lawyers representing asylum seekers. The remaining 86 have been transferred following court actions or the threat of them. 

This year, 240 people have been transferred after refugee advocates threatened or launched legal proceedings. A further 90 have been transferred on Federal Court orders because they required urgent medical treatment.

Morrison is right that the government hasn’t been “showboating” about bringing kids and their families from Nauru to Australia: it has fought this process tooth and nail, spending half a million dollars since July on legal fees challenging applications by lawyers acting on behalf of sick children. 

In most cases it has been unsuccessful: government lawyers’ claims that the children are not as sick as paediatric specialists say have fallen flat in court. As Jana Favero, director of advocacy and campaigns at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, put it: “The kids who are being brought to Australia are being rescued from the government, not by the government”.

For example, in the week that the government announced the Christmas deadline, Home Affairs lawyers appeared before a full bench of the Federal Court to challenge the court’s jurisdiction to make orders for asylum seekers to be transferred at all. 

Fortunately, the judges knocked back the application. Had they approved it, dozens of asylum seekers would have had their transfers to Australia revoked, and many more would have been denied the ability to apply for transfer in future.

Home affairs minister Peter Dutton has put paid to any idea that the government is relenting in the face of the wave of support to get kids off Nauru that has come from doctors, human rights lawyers and welfare groups. He told Sky News at the end of October that any children and family members transferred to Australia for medical treatment would be kicked out when this was completed. 

Refugees, Dutton said, would be “returned” to their “country of origin”. He has also said that some fathers on Nauru will not be allowed into Australia on the grounds of failing security checks. 

In the lead-up to the Wentworth byelection, Morrison suggested that the government might take up the New Zealand government’s offer to take 150 refugees a year if the ALP and Greens would support legislation to prevent them later entering Australia. 

Shamefully, both parties dropped their historic opposition to such a lifetime visa ban. But no sooner had they done so than the prime minister rejected the idea that he had ever put forward such an option.

The government says that it is running down the numbers of refugees held offshore with transfers of several hundred asylum seekers to the US as part of the deal struck in 2016 between Malcolm Turnbull and Barack Obama. 

Putting aside the fact that the Australian government has an obligation to allow these people to settle here, the US process is far too slow – and it is discriminatory, with hundreds of Iranian and Somali applicants rejected because of the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban. 

And it is cruel. Border Force officials are reportedly telling refugees in Nauru they must separate from their wives and children detained in Australia – and face never seeing them again – to apply for resettlement in the US. 

It is also manifestly inadequate. Even if the US took all 1,250 people it previously agreed to, hundreds would be left behind. 

Coalition politicians continue to lie about the situation on Nauru and Manus Island. Tony Abbott told Sydney’s 2GB radio that conditions on Nauru are “very, very pleasant” and that asylum seekers are “very well looked after”, receiving better medical care than many Australians living in regional areas.

But we know the real situation. These places are designed to punish those who have committed no crime. The Australian Medical Association warns of an increase in catastrophic mental and physical health conditions among refugees, especially children. 

Thoughts of suicide are never far from the minds of many, and the situation is getting worse by the month. For the crime of reporting on the health conditions on Nauru, Doctors without Borders medical staff were kicked off the island last month. 

The situation for those detained onshore is little better. Refugees in Villawood, Yongah Hill or Maribyrnong still face jail-like conditions. Social isolation means that reports of people sewing their lips shut, self-harming or attempting suicide are not uncommon.

The government is also determined to make life hell for those living in the community. Last year, it announced welfare assistance cuts to more than 13,000 refugees in Australia, threatening up to 80 percent of them with homelessness and destitution. The government is also removing access to trauma and torture counselling services and case management support, and shifting the responsibility to NGOs and state governments.

Both Coalition and ALP politicians continue to play with the lives of hundreds of souls whose only “crime” was to exercise their right to apply for asylum in Australia. It is well past time that the children and families are taken off Nauru. Further, the asylum seekers languishing in Australian-run detention centres and camps should be released immediately.