This month marks five years since then-prime minister Kevin Rudd declared asylum seekers in Manus and Nauru would never call Australia home. In those five years, Australia has arbitrarily, brutally and illegally imprisoned more than 1000 children, women and men indefinitely and without charge in offshore hell-holes.
It has driven asylum-seekers beyond despair, and 12 innocent people have died as a result of this policy.
I recently attended the second Australian Refugee Action Network conference in Melbourne. As I walked in, Max Costello, retired WorkSafe Victoria prosecuting solicitor, handed me an appeal to the law titled “How to end Criminality and Impunity”. That is precisely the task that faces the refugee rights movement.
Barrister Julian Burnside said at the conference “this is more than about refugees. It is about our whole way of life. Laws that mistreat human beings are a worse threat than terrorism”.
By scorning international covenants, by regarding compassion as a misty-eyed weakness, refusing to action even the most elementary work health and safety obligations, successive Australian governments have embarked on a strategy that is hurling us all into dangerous territory.
Rod Bower, from Gosford Anglican Church, said we urgently needed a Bill of Rights to protect us from the laws that threaten us. Shen Narayanasamy of Getup! summed up government tactics in a nutshell. She said “It is a ‘classic bait and switch’. While we are preoccupied with asylum-seekers and stopping boats and strong borders the government has created a society of guest-workers who can be readily exploited”.
How do we end criminal impunity when it is supported through legislation, social practices and an elaborate system of handballing responsibility?
Three years ago, doctors at the Lady Cilento hospital in Brisbane refused to allow Baby Asha to be deported back to Nauru. Their refusal sparked the #LetThemStay movement across the country. When we began weekly vigils in Newcastle at that time, Sharon Claydon, ALP Member for Newcastle said “ALP policy is not going to change until there are thousands of you”.
In that time, over $10 billion has been thrown away on offshore prisons while cutting health, education and workers rights. The Turnbull government has used both refugees and unionists as scapegoats to deflect attention from its corporate tax cuts, unfair laws, and flogging off of public assets. The ALP has trotted obediently along. With an election looming, there is little prospect of the ALP listening. The back-room strategists are in control. But the next election can be won with pro-refugee policies.
The time has come to march on the ALP in our millions and reclaim the Opposition from the backroom strategists and their political masters in Canberra. We have to march for those who do not have the right to march. We march for those who have lost hope. We also have to ensure the ALP cannot wriggle out of its promises, as it did when it re-opened the Pacific Solution.
Five years, 12 lives, $10 billion: it’s past time to evacuate Manus and Nauru. If we don't turn ALP refugee policy around, then no matter who wins at the next election, we will all have lost.