Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers puts forward Government-desired solutions

Once again, the Australian Government has used hand-picked “experts” to say yes to “offshore processing”. None of the three individuals on the Houston Panel have been appointed by refugee community groups or advocates, and therefore it comes as no surprise that their proposal is in line with the Government’s own offshore policy platform.

The proposal set forth by the appointed “expert panel” establishes offshore processing centres and isolates asylum seekers without giving them adequate refugee rights. In 2001 the conservative Liberal Australian Government, led by then Prime Minister John Howard, put forward the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ and now under the current Labor Government led by Julia Gillard offshore processing is likely to become a part of Australian Law and will be the second largest damaging policy to refugees.

We should not forget that the Australian High Court has already rejected the Malaysian Solution and that detention facilities in Nauru were closed due to overwhelming human rights abuses that asylum seekers faced there. We should not push back asylum seekers and refugees from Australia to other countries; countries that have not signed the UN Refugee Convention.

Furthermore, Nauru has a poor track record of protection, safety, and humanitarian assistance for refugees and asylum seekers. As a leading member of the international community and as a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, the Australian Government has certain ethical and legal obligations towards asylum seekers and refugees. According to the “expert panel”, the temporary protection visa (TPV) should be used for refugees who they might believe to be “vulnerable” in offshore detention centres, such as in Nauru or Manus Island.

The “expert panel” has forgotten that refugees are coming from life-threatening circumstances. They are vulnerable enough without the possibility of this ill-advised proposal. Further it is concerning that this proposal will penalise refugees by not allowing them to reunite with their family and isolating them indefinitely. If people have been locked in centres such as those in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, what democratic options do they have? How long will it take to process their visa?

I personally disagree with the Australian Government’s recent decision to re-open the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres. I speak from my experiences of being detained three years in both off shore and on shore Australian detention centres. Detention is an illegal form of house arrest established by the Labor Government and developed under John Howard’s regime.  I would like to correct any misconceptions created by the Australian Government that it is a loving, humane or family friendly environment.  Many years of incarceration have contributed to mental and physical disabilities among fellow detainees.  Many of us have experienced first-hand what it is like to be detained in this kind of detention centre.

When I was in Christmas Island and Cocos Island – “offshore” detention centres – I saw people’s lives deteriorate whilst the isolated surroundings intimidated asylum seekers in to volunteering to go back to the countries where their lives were jeopardised in the first place. When people spoke out against injustices they were experiencing in detention centres, they were placed in isolation or solitary confinement. Further freedom was violated and limited by the authorities who treated us like subhumans. 

There is evidence suggesting that the creation of detention centres offshore can punish and silence the voices of asylum seekers, passing the blame onto the victims. The Australian Government has shirked its responsibility of running detention centres and given this responsibility over to private companies and is now further passing the responsibility to other countries wherein asylum seekers will be treated inhumanely. While refugees are waiting indefinitely in these centres, the possibility of their families back home facing danger and persecution is real. Offshore processing centres may lower the number of asylum seekers in Australia, but it is not a viable solution to fairly deal with asylum seekers and it will not put a stop to people coming to this country by boat.

There are over 40 million refugees around the world and Australia, many languishing in interim camps around the world. The offshore processing system will just add to this tally of interim camps, keeping refugees further in limbo. People fleeing persecution will always keep trying to reach a more permanent and secure location for themselves and their families whether there is a policy to stop them or not. Irrespective of how people arrive to Australia, asylum seekers should be treated with dignity and respect without being isolated behind razor-wire in the middle of nowhere.

Many of us transit through countries such as Malaysia or Indonesia, without going through any international humanitarian refugee process or consultations before taking the treacherous journey in a leaky boat across the Indian Ocean towards Australia.  If you look at why asylum seekers are making such a catastrophic decision to leave their country, most of the reasons given are related to a fear of persecution in their country or a fear of living in a war torn environment.  Yet these arrivals on a boat are questioned and monitored more closely than others by the Australian Government, politicians and the media.

People coming from countries such as Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Burma are in precarious, life threatening situations and the current proposals by the Australian Government’s “expert panel” jeopardises their safety and wellbeing. In the last two decades there has been a regression in Australia’s asylum seeker and refugee policy and it is noted that the issue has been politicised heavily in order to win votes through hardline attitudes. It is an unrealistic attempt at providing “a solution” to a multi-faceted problem.

The adoption of the ‘Expert Panel’ proposal re-institates the insular, backward looking “White Australia” motivation behind Australian policy making.

Ramesh Fernandez, CEO and Founder of RISE