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Malcolm Turnbull, Manus and New Zealand: Time to let these people go

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(Image by Walid Zazai via thewireless.co.nz)

New Zealand has offered sanctuary to 150 refugees Australia has marooned on Manus Island, but our Malcolm Turnbull has refused to allow it. Eleanor Green reports on a developing humanitarian crisis.

AT THE END of October, facilities to the Manus Island detention centre were removed, putting nearly 600 asylum seekers in peril. Food supply, electricity and water were cut off, as the Australian Government attempted to fulfil its objective to close the camp. However, while others have moved on to the township of Lorengau, where they remain in danger due to local animosity, still 400 men remain at the camp. 

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is adamant

“... no-one from Manus Island Regional Processing Centre will ever be settled in Australia.”

The closure of Manus Island detention facility has been impending since Wilson Security and Ferrovial made the decision to end operations in the centre, after sustained public pressure. However, in the time since Wilson’s announcement, the Government has not come up with an alternative solution for the asylum seekers.

The asylum seekers are now involved in a standoff on Manus Island, which the U.N. has termed an 'unfolding humanitarian emergency', caught between two countries who do not want them. Self-made water tanks were reported to be destroyed by officials. Fences were taken down and the refugees are without protection. Asylum seekers have been beaten and robbed many times by PNG locals, with at least three attacks since June, causing them to require urgent medical attention. They have also been attacked by Papua New Guinean police, leading to a death and 51 injuries during protests in February. There have been 37 deaths in Australian onshore and offshore detention facilities since 2010.

Recently installed Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern has repeated the offer made by previous Prime Minister John Key to accept 150 refugees from Manus Island. The offer had previously been declined by the Gillard, Rudd and Abbott governments.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has criticised the deal, saying:

"It's a back-door way to get into Australia, and would have been a green light to people smugglers."

Ms Ardern raised the offer at her first meeting with Malcolm Turnbull on Sunday, 5 November. Turnbull rejected the offer, stating that Australia’s position on the matter has not changed. However, the Senate has voted that Australia should accept the New Zealand offer, and the vote is now to be forwarded to the House of Representatives. If the decision here is to accept, then Turnbull’s refusal will not look good, as he will be going against the majority in a minority Government.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has urged President Turnbull to consider the New Zealand offer, saying:

“... there is something going on at Manus which is deeply disturbing to the Australian people… I think the government should take very seriously the invitation on the table from New Zealand. Beyond that, you can discourage the people smugglers but it doesn't mean you treat hundreds of people in an inhumane fashion."

Australia’s actions are in breach of the United Nations Convention and Protocol on the Status of Refugees and have been condemned by the U.N. multiple times. U.N. deputy regional representative Nai Jit Lam has also urged Malcolm Turnbull to take up New Zealand’s offer to accept the asylum seekers from Manus Island.

He stated:

"This solution is very important... it's on the table and it's something that needs to be considered very seriously… We urge Australia to reconsider this and take up the offer."

He said that it was “incomprehensible” for Malcolm Turnbull not to accept the offer immediately.

Turnbull has mentioned the deal with America to take some of the refugees on Manus Island as beng one of the reasons to reject the New Zealand offer. However, the transcript of a phone conversation has revealed that Turnbull told Trump he only needs to go through the process and does not need to actually accept any of the asylum seekers. Trump has been quoted as saying the deal, which was originally between Malcolm Turnbull and President Obama, was “the worst deal ever.” A mere 50 refugees have since been taken to America, approximately half from Nauru and half from Manus Island. A further solution is desperately needed for the remaining refugees.

The Australian Government plans to move the refugees to new “transit centres” in Lorengau. However, the facility is not yet ready for the asylum seekers to live in, according to workers on the ground from the UNHCR. The asylum seekers have barricaded themselves into the camp in protest, over fears for their safety if they are moved, as they will receive no protection in the new compound.

"So many people are scared,” one asylum seeker who has been on Manus Island for four years reportedly told the BBC. “We don't know what will happen tomorrow.”

Another asylum seeker told the BBC he is "fifty per cent" certain that the Papua New Guinea authorities would

"... storm the compound … They say in their statement they are not going to use force, but two hours later they came into our compound and they said on a microphone that they are going to use force.”

Irrespective of Turnbull’s refusal to accept the asylum seekers on Manus Island, the Australian Government has no authority to imprison them in another country that has not agreed to accept them and prevent them from seeking freedom elsewhere. The New Zealand Government has every right to bring these asylum seekers to safety, and any attempts by the Australian government to prevent this would be illegal under international law, as the asylum seekers are not the property of Australia.

The Government and others have raised concerns that accepting the asylum seekers from Manus Island into Australia would encourage people smugglers to bring more refugees to Australia. This does not justify human rights abuses and will not stop desperate people from seeking safety in a global climate of instability. If punishing asylum seekers was the Australian Government’s plan, surely up to four years spent in inhumane conditions, is enough. The Australian Government has caused more harm to asylum seekers over years of imprisonment than the people smugglers who brought them here by boat.

The wasted funding that is spent on the unlawful detention of asylum seekers, could instead be spent on faster processing, which would actually reduce the demand for people smugglers. A report by Save the Children and UNICEF has stated that Australian taxpayers have paid up to $9.6 billion on offshore immigration enforcement between 2013 and 2016. The Australian Government also paid $70 million to the detainees of Manus Island to settle a class action lawsuit, due to the physical and psychological harm they have been subjected to.

Instead of punishing people for seeking safety by putting them in camps with conditions worse than our prisons, the Government needs to take a humanitarian approach. Having in place a proper process for asylum seekers, by arranging safe transportation and assistance with asylum claims is the only way to improve the situation. Due to the steep increase in the number of asylum seekers globally, there needs to be a multiple-country agreement about how to tackle the situation, with resources going toward processing asylum seekers safely rather than using force to imprison innocent and vulnerable people.

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