If Papua New Guinea is responsible for the fate of refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island, then why is it the Australian Prime Minister rejecting New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 of them?
The double-speak on this issue is breathtaking, and the Australian government’s actions belie its rhetoric that this is PNG’s problem and not its own.
As a matter of international law, Australia remains responsible for the people it has put on Manus Island. It cannot absolve itself of that responsibility simply by closing centres and withdrawing staff and resources.
The Australian Immigration Minister boasts that no one has died at sea on his watch, but he has masterminded policies that have broken the lives and spirits of hundreds of people who are instead dying a slow death on land – as some have described it. Their experience is marked by physical insecurity, ill-health, trauma and mental illness, as well as separation from wives and children whom they are told can never reunite with them. This is not only inhumane, but contrary to international law – obligations that Australia has voluntarily accepted. These men are stuck in limbo, even though the majority have been recognised as refugees in need of protection. It is the same for the men, women and children held on Nauru.
A policy aimed at ‘stopping the boats’ does not operate in a vacuum. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has pointed out: “There is a fundamental contradiction in saving people at sea, only to mistreat and neglect them on land.”
Experience shows that deterrence does not work as a long-term policy objective; mandatory detention is a case in point. Refugees fleeing persecution and other serious human rights abuses will do whatever it takes to find safety. In so doing, they are also exercising their fundamental right under international law to seek asylum. Seeking asylum is legal. The fact that many flee without documents is typical – and even indicative – of refugee flight, a point Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg acknowledged last week when he explained that his own mother had fled war-torn Europe without travel documentation.
The refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island are facing a humanitarian crisis, with insufficient physical and legal protection and a highly insecure future. Australia’s actions – and inactions – are perpetuating the inhumane and undignified conditions in which people are living, not least by staunchly rejecting solutions that could alleviate suffering, such as New Zealand’s resettlement offer. Australia created the situation on Manus Island and has continuing responsibility under international law for the welfare of the people it has sent there.
Jane McAdam is Scientia Professor of Law and Director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW.