Illustration: Jim Pavlidis Peter Dutton says the Manus Island detainees will never come to Australia.
Peter Dutton is taking his war on people smuggling to a new level, one that defies logic and basic decency and appears to be more about establishing his big-C conservative credentials than protecting the nation’s borders.
Not content with contradicting his Prime Minister and declaring there is no third country option for the refugees stranded on Manus Island, Dutton now insists that any refugees who are granted PNG citizenship will never be allowed to travel to Australia.
The news came not at a media conference or in a press release after the proposition had been endorsed by the cabinet or Coalition party room, but in response to a text message from a listener during a radio interview with the very supportive Ray Hadley on Thursday.
The listener’s question was simple enough: if “these people” at some point in the future were granted a PNG passport, would they then be able to travel to “our country”?
No, came the answer. “That would be the case in any arrangement that we enter into,” Dutton explained.
“There likely would be a change to some law which we would need Labor to support, and we’ll wait and see whether they do support that, but I’ve made it clear that, even if people are granted citizenship elsewhere, they’re not then coming to Australia.”
Listeners were not told that those who have already spent three years in detention on Manus have to be in PNG for eight years before they can even apply for citizenship, or that many of them have brothers, sisters, wives, children and cousins in Australia.
Nor were they told how denying certified refugees with valid passports and no criminal records entry to Australia – surely the most basic right of freedom of movement – could conceivably encourage the people smuggling trade.
Nor were they told that citizens of other countries have no ability to lodge protection claims concerning persecution in their country of origin if they visit Australia.
In some cases, it was a mere quirk of fate that meant that some family members arrived before, and others after, Kevin Rudd declared before the 2013 election: “As of today, asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia.”
For those on Manus with family in Australia, the daily queuing for meals in the detention centre is the most painful reminder of separation, because meal-time used to be family time.
After Dutton’s remarks, I spoke to two asylum seekers at the detention centre with family in Australia and the response was sadly predictable. This was, said 24-year old Ben, who has cousins in Melbourne, another form of the mental torture the asylum seekers have endured to for the last three years.
The refugees on Manus and Nauru did not, of course, get a vote in the July 2 election, but they stand to lose the most from Malcolm Turnbull’s wafer-thin victory.
Had Labor won, Bill Shorten vowed to put his immigration minister on the first plane to Geneva to enlist the UNHCR in finding resettlement countries, whilst retaining turnbacks and offshore processing.
Had Turnbull scored an emphatic victory that enhanced his authority, he gave the distinct impression that ending the misery of those on Nauru and Manus would be a priority. That, at least, was my conclusion when he told Four Corners’ Sarah Ferguson that finding “alternative places for them to settle” would be “easier” after the election.
Almost two months on, this does not appear to be the case. Rather, Dutton gives every indication that little effort is being made to find third countries with established resettlement programs; that first-world resettlement options like the US, Canada and New Zealand are off limits; and that the options for those on Manus are to go home (even if they are refugees) or settle in PNG.
The Immigration Minister appears to be driven by twin convictions: one, that the slightest hint of compassion will be viewed as a sign of weakness that will embolden the people smugglers and lead to deaths at sea; and two, that public opinion is overwhelmingly on his side.
Rather than increase pressure on the government to find a solution for those who have been left in limbo, the leaking of the “Nauru files” to Guardian Australia appears only to have hardened his resolve.
In one interview this week, he insisted he was not going to be “defamed” by the likes of the Guardian or the ABC, and said flatly there was “no third country option for people out of Manus at this point in time”.
In another, he defamed those who have been found to have a well-founded fear of persecution if they return to their country, telling 7.30’s Leigh Sales: “I think the situation is that people have paid people smugglers for a migration outcome.”
Implicit in his refusal to bend is what amounts to a vote of no-confidence in the ability of Operation Sovereign Borders and the ADF to repel any attempt to restart the smuggling trade through turnbacks, co-operation with Indonesia and the policy that new arrivals will be processed offshore and not resettled in Australia.
What we do not know is how much effort Turnbull is devoting to finding an outcome, and whether Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is engaged in talking to counterparts in developed and developing countries with resettlement programs.
One likelihood is that Malaysia, the country that was spurned as part of any response not once, but twice, by the Coalition purely to extract partisan political advantage, is part of any such endeavour.
What we do know is that PNG has neither the will nor the capacity to resettle anything like the 850 souls who are still living in the detention centre it has committed to close after it was deemed unconstitutional by PNG’s highest court in April.
What we also know is that the mental state of those on Manus and Nauru continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate, and that there will be more tragic consequences if no solution is found.
It isn’t the conditions on Nauru or Manus that are the biggest problem, or the level of care the asylum seekers are afforded, or the tensions within the refugee populations and with the wider communities. It is that people can only survive for so long without any hope before they are broken.
This is the reality that only Turnbull has the power to address, with or without the support of his ambitious Immigration Minister.
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