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Parliament votes against urgent refugee evacuation bill

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The Abanese Government has neglected its promise to be 'tough on borders without being weak on humanity' (Screenshot via YouTube)

Despite a promise to show compassion, the Labor Government has sided with the Liberals and One Nation, turning down a bill to rescue asylum seekers imprisoned overseas, writes Chris Fitzgerald.

EARLIER THIS MONTH, the Albanese Government voted against the Migration Amendment (Evacuation to Safety) Bill 2023.

The bill, introduced by the Greens Senator Nick McKim, proposed to urgently evacuate 150 refugees still held in detention in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

These refugees would be able to remain in Australia and access medical care while they await resettlement in a third country, such as New Zealand or the United States.

When tabling the bill, Senator McKim stated:

“After ten long years of offshore detention, it is abhorrent that about 150 people remain exiled in PNG and Nauru.”

The bill was defeated in the Senate 24 votes to 12, with the Greens and Independent Senators David Pocock and Lidia Thorpe voting in favour.

In contrast, the Government sided with the politically Right Liberal-National Coalition opposition and the openly xenophobic One Nation Party.

Jana Favero, Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at the Australian Asylum Seeker Resource Centre criticised the Government's decision, saying:

“Make no mistake, the Labor and Liberal parties after ten years are still playing politics with the lives of refugees.”

Before the vote, the Legal and Constitutional Affairs legislation committee, which is government controlled, agreed. The committee said that offshore detention was damaging and “cannot be allowed to continue” and that it “urges the Government to urgently consider all available options to effect the removal of asylum seekers and refugees currently in offshore detention”.

Australia has long been criticised for its treatment of refugees.

Since 2012, Australia has forcibly sent people seeking asylum by boat without valid visas to offshore detention on Nauru or Manus Island, which is part of Papua New Guinea.

In 2013, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that any asylum seeker arriving by boat would be sent to Nauru or Manus Island and never be resettled in Australia.

Offshore detention is bipartisan, with both Labor and the Coalition supporting the policy.

The Albanese Government claims that it is “tough on borders without being weak on humanity” and has used its pledge to end Temporary Protection Visas as proof.

But conditions in offshore detention facilities have been labelled inhumane by human rights advocates and medical professionals.

There is evidence of physical and sexual abuse of men, women and children and 14 people have died through either neglect or suicide. The level of medical care available has also been deemed inadequate by medical professionals.

Australia’s offshore detention regime has been widely condemned internationally.

In 2018, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called the policy “an affront to the protection of human rights” while the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court called it ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment’.

Australia’s offshore detention regime may also contravene international law.

In 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur Against Torture Juan Méndez found that aspects of Australia’s policy violated a person’s right to be free from torture or ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’ under articles 1 and 16 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

In 2020, the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC accused it of violating the “fundamental rules of international law” and that some conduct on Manus Island and Nauru may constitute the underlying act of imprisonment or other severe deprivations of physical liberty under article 7(1)(e) of the Rome Statute.

The policy also contravenes the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Under the principle of non-penalisation, the Government must not impose a penalty upon those who travel irregularly from countries where their lives and liberty are threatened. Offshore processing has the effect of harming and penalising asylum-seekers and refugees. Further, it may also breach the principle of non-refoulement, which obliges the Government not to transfer persons to territories where they would face persecution or other significant harm.

These people should also be free from indefinite or arbitrary detention and unlawful interference in their family and private lives under international human rights law. 

These are serious legal obligations designed to protect vulnerable people and they have been ignored by successive Australian governments for a decade.

By voting down last week’s bill, the Albanese Government has spurned an opportunity to rectify past wrongs and show that it isn’t “weak on humanity”.

The Government can rectify this in a few ways.

Offshore detention should end. It is a cruel and inhumane policy that has caused untold human suffering. The relatively small number of refugees still on Manus Island and Nauru should be evacuated to Australia and either given humanitarian protection by the Government or resettled in a third country.

Failing this, the Government needs to implement a humane system to evacuate refugees held on Manus Island and Nauru for urgent medical care. This system needs to be rapid, with a clear process to enable quick decision-making to help save lives.

The Government should also follow best practice and ensure that any future policies are consistent with Australia’s international legal obligations and respect the fundamental human rights of people seeking asylum.

This way, the Albanese Government can be strong, not weak, on humanity.

Chris Fitzgerald is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne, writing on political, legal and human rights issues in the Asia-Pacific region. You can follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisFitzMelb.

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