Who Will be Our 1st Minister of Refugees?

17 February 2016 7:59 pm

The situation Australia faces is now confronting the world. According to the UN refugee agency’s 2014 Global Trends report, one in every 122 humans living on the planet is either a refugee, an internally displaced person, or an asylum-seeker. In 2014, a staggering 42,500 persons per day were to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere because of conflict, resulting in a staggering 59.5 million total refugees worldwide.

Growing up in a refugee household, I’ve been appalled and sickened by the incarceration of refugees on Manus Island and Nauru, including children. I am horrified by reports that all the women on Nauru have been raped. When I read this, I feel a wrenching in my gut, my response is visceral. And that both political parties have ruled out any resettlement of asylum seekers in Australia, even if they are deemed to have refugee status.

This was not the Australia my family came to, a place that accepted newcomers and helped them fit in. I read these recent accounts and cannot help but think: It could have been my family, refugees cast adrift, looking for somewhere safe.

The Australian High Court has ruled that offshore detention is legal. Not that the High Court is to blame. The High Court is there to clarify laws set down by the Australian government. Both major parties have endorsed offshore detention, saying the ends justify the means. It’s all apparently about protecting our borders and stopping drownings at sea. But nobody has yet made the case that incarcerating people indefinitely in camps, placing them in conditions where children are abused and women raped, is a moral course of action.

No politician can explain how a court decision that allows allows child abuse, torture and rape of asylum seekers is moral and decent. And no one can expect the rule of law to be an answer when the government pushed through retrospective legislation to solidify its processing powers after the challenge to the constitutionality of the offshore processing system had been initiated. The Government had shifted the goal posts. How moral was that?
Refugees will not disappear. The refugees on Manus Island and Nauru will stay there, costing the Australian taxpayer. The immigration department's portfolio budget statement released with the 2015-16 budget anticipated the full year's administered costs for offshore processing in 2014-15 to be $858 million and the departmental costs to be $54 million. That’s a total of $912 million.

So it’s costing taxpayers close to $1 billion a year.

Let us remember that the 2012 expert panel on asylum seekers headed by Angus Houston recommended offshore processing as part of a "comprehensive regional network". Houston recommended the pursuit of the so-called "Malaysian solution", among other changes in policy. Offshore processing was only ever supposed to be a temporary salve.
That hasn’t happened.

The key issue is that the refugee crisis is not going away and Australia can expect a tsunami of asylum with climate change creating droughts, floods and rising sea levels in the Pacific Islands.

At the same time, the imposition of the incarceration regime on Manus Island and Naurui is unsustainable. Refugees brutalised by locals have begged to be resettled in Australia.

So what’s the solution?

In researching my upcoming book on the history of refugees in Australia, I was very struck by the policies of the Chifley and Menzies Governments in setting up the first ever Australian Commonwealth Department of Immigration in the post-war years. More than 180,000 people were resettled in Australia from 1948 to 1953, including refugees traumatised by the Holocaust, including my family and people fleeing the Communists.

Never again would Australia admit such a large number of refugees. Only the United States admitted more refugees thanAustralia in those decades after the war. What is striking here is the leadership shown by the government. It refused to bow to the concerns of anti-immigrant groups like the Australian Natives Association. So different to John Howard placating One Nation supporters during the Tampa crisis.

So what could be our solution today? One would be as radical a solution as setting up the Department of Immigration after the war. The Department of Immigration has dealt with refugees by default. Its main focus was on nation building..
I propose a Commonwealth of Australia Department of Refugees. This would send a signal to the rest of the world that Australia was serious about this problem. It would acknowledgethe country’s responsibility toward people who emigrate because they have been displaced.

Unlike a Department of Immigration, its policies would be shaped by a humanitarian commitment. It wouldn’t be strangled by the current bureaucratic rules surrounding immigration.

By doing this, Australia’s first Minister for Refugees could show real leadership in a world struggling with this humanitarian burden.