Beyond the morally indefensible status quo

Refugees Human rights Asylum seekers Offshore detention Australia

Two years ago former prime minister Tony Abbott did something his media drum-beaters didn’t appreciate: he expressed some regret about his decision as opposition leader in 2011 to oppose the Gillard government’s “people swap with Malaysia.”

That arrangement would have seen the first 800 unauthorised maritime arrivals sent to Malaysia, where they would be registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, and live in the community, provided with health and education (paid for by Australia) and local work rights while they waited for the outcome of their refugee applications.

The “swap” part involved Australia resettling 4000 certified (but different) refugees from Malaysia. Many tens of thousands of registered refugees (and many more undocumented) live in Malaysia, most of them Rohingyas from Myanmar. The 4000 would have been part of the almost 14,000 Australia resettled annually at that time.

The logic behind the plan was that, in theory, no asylum seeker would want to be part of that first group of 800 and so none would get on a boat for Australia. But the arrangement sank because, in 2011, the High Court ruled it unlawful, and the Coalition and Greens refused to facilitate legislation to make it lawful.

“I doubt it would have worked,” Abbott told the Samuel Griffiths Society in 2016. “Still, letting it stand would have been an acknowledgement of the government of the day’s mandate to do the best it could, by its own lights, to meet our nation’s challenges.”

Not exactly root-and-branch self-criticism, but an acknowledgement.

It’s worth recalling all this because if something is to be done for the approximately 800 people still stuck on Nauru and Manus, policy-makers will need to again think outside the square. The status quo is morally indefensible.

Read the full article on Inside Story.

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