Someone new to the debate (Scout) on the implications for queer asylum seekers under Labor’s new “hardline”.
We Australians are used to seeing blood in the ocean. There were the red sands of Gallipoli, the white sharks of the East Coast, the convict ships of the First Fleet. And now we have the shallows of Christmas Island. One thousand and eleven asylum seekers have surrendered their lives to the ocean in an attempt to reach safety in Australia since 2008. Just last week, another fifteen boat arrivals were lost in the blue throes of the Pacific Ocean, just off Java, in a ship of two hundred asylum seekers bound for our country. They were Iranian and Sri Lankan. Six children, and eighteen month year old infant and a pregnant woman. No one knows their names.
And now, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s new asylum seeker policy ensures that their families will never see Australian soil. If Gallipoli was our baptism of fire, then this is chance for expiation in holy waters.
Howard stitched up our borders with barbed wire, without anaesthetic. In a daring social experiment, Labor tried to pull the splints out to let our country heal; bare and exposed to the elements. But now the wound has split wider. We are bleeding. And, for all intents and purposes, Rudd’s Papua New Guinea “solution” is a political placebo. It was designed to win over Sydney’s Western suburbs by taking a popular hard line stance to Stop The Boats.
Rudd’s logic is brutal. He has promised to process and resettle asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea in an attempt to make the journey to Australia by boat so unattractive that no one will bother. It’s a classic case of applying fundamental economic principles to a humanitarian issue. It assumes that asylum seekers are cogent and consenting consumers, operating in a free market. But the truth is very different. Those fleeing structural persecution are unlikely to have the recourse or time to work through the documentation that allows for legal migration or air travel. They are even less likely to have much awareness of our refugee law. Arrival numbers fluctuate in line with global people movement, rather than our law. So will this policy turn the tide of asylum seekers and curtail the people trafficking industry? No.
Our refusal to accommodate any persons granted refugee status in Australia “under any circumstances” is legally ambiguous at best. Like its draconian predecessor, Gillard’s “Malaysia Solution”, the Papua New Guinea policy is a flagrant abrogation of Australia’s obligations as a signatory of the UNHCR. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser called the change “an abdication of Australia’s responsibilities and… an abdication of our basic humanity.” This is the day Australia closed the door.
But that is not the only reason I cannot stomach this policy.
Rudd might not be repatriating asylum seekers to their country of origin. But his policy forces some refugees to face the persecution they fled in the first instance, just on different soil. But we know almost nothing about the experience of queer asylum seekers. What we do know is that expressions of homosexuality in the fiercely Christian Papua New Guinea are a criminal offence, punishable by up to fourteen years imprisonment. “Either [queer asylum seekers] ‘come out’ to make their refugee claim and risk punishment or they remain silent and are returned to their country of origin where they face persecution,” says Senthorun Raj, Amnesty International Spokesman. “The Refugee Convention requires that states refrain from sending refugees to places where their life or liberty would be threatened.”
Every queer person who is sent to Papua New Guinea under this policy is twice a refugee; once, for experiencing discrimination in their homeland; and again, in the place ostensibly designed to protect them.
Queer asylum seekers are not the only people put at risk at offshore processing. Self-harm and suicide are part of Nauru’s daily monotony. A UNHCR report into Manus Island revealed living conditions inconsistent with international human rights law. Neither facility – comprised mostly of makeshift camps after detainee riots caused $60 million damage – is ready to take in the three hundred asylum seekers who have arrived since Rudd’s announcement last Friday.
The choice of host country is similarly problematic. Papua New Guinea is currently struggling to cope with an outbreak of drug-resistant tuberculosis. This is coupled with poor sanitation, poor access to clean drinking water and under-resource public services. Papua New Guinea is a vulnerable state in its own right and in no position to provide a place of greater safety. At a rally in Melbourne, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young decried Rudd’s policy as “dumping the world’s most vulnerable on the doorstep of the world’s most vulnerable”.
This is Rudd’s Macbeth moment. Having slain his predecessor, the sky appears to be falling. Rudd has seen the blood on his hands. He appears to try to scrub them clean with the salt brine of the Pacific Ocean, to no avail. And I am growing sick at the thought of more blood staining our seas.
Rudd is trying to save his own skin at the next election. Innocent people will continue to suffer under an inhumane policy designed to push electoral buttons. Or perhaps he is putting the problem back in its original packaging to sheepishly, guiltlessly send it back to where it came from.