Australia’s Human Rights Shame

As I write this, the asylum seekers that Australia had warehoused in an Australian funded and operated detention centre on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island are facing being forcibly evicted from that centre by member’s of the PNG Defence Forces.

The centre, which had been founded to be illegal under PNG law, was ‘officially’ closed yesterday, and Australia has withdrawn all officials and service providers in advance of that closure. The detainees, in effect, have been abandoned by the country that owed them a duty of care, i.e. the Commonwealth of Australia, and have been left to fend for themselves in a situation which is difficult at best – and downright hostile at worst.

Now there will be some who will say that Australia had worked to ensure that there were alternative accommodation for the detainees – and they would be correct up to a point. Yes, alternative accommodation was constructed in a town nearby to the original detention centre. Unfortunately, it would appear that the inhabitants of that town were not adequately consulted; they are not happy about a sudden influx of former residents of the detention centre.

And there in we find the cause of the fear of the detainees.

At the heart of this fiasco, however, is the callous disregard of the current Australian government – and the other side of politics as well – for Australia’s obligations under the UN’s Refugee Convention. Australia has constantly sort to abrogate their responsibilities, and the abandonment of the detainees yesterday must surely be seen as further evidence of that.

Australia has an obligation to these people. There is an obligation to ensure that those who are in Australia’s custody are kept safe from harm. There is an obligation for the asylum claims of the detainees to be assessed quickly and efficiently (not a process dragging on for years as it already has done). There is an obligation on Australia to provide those found to genuine refugees – and in excess of 90% of all asylum seekers are found to be genuine – with a safe place of residence, either in Australia or a willing third country.

Australian can not simply wash it hands for the situation being faced by the detainees of the now former Manus Island Regional Processing Centre, and just walk away.

Australia has consistently failed to live up to the obligations it willing took on in signing the Refugee Convention. For much of the past seventeen years, those arriving by boat in Australia or Australian waters seeking protection from persecution have been used for partisan political purposes. The fate of these people – yes, they’re people, not a political problem! – lays directly in the hands of the responsible Australian government and minister, regardless of the political colour of the current incumbents.

It is time for Australia to accept it responsibility, and to bring the remaining detainees on Manus Island to Australian territory.

To do less than that is simply reprehensible, and will be to Australia’s everlasting shame.