The Morrison government could get everyone out of offshore detention but Abbott and Dutton want to extend the cruelty,
The Australian government has been quietly removing children from Nauru over recent weeks, and George Brandis has now been good enough to confirm in a radio interview that the government wants all kids off before Christmas.
The government has been sending that message internally for some weeks to try to reassure worried MPs and head off any serious insurrection, but it has been considered entirely counterproductive to telegraph the intention publicly. Now, for whatever reason, that calculation seems to have now changed.
So it’s a relief that kids are coming off Nauru. These children are in peril, and they are in peril as a consequence of Australia’s punitive refugee deterrence policies.
Our immigration policy has a practical effect, and we need to be clear what that is. People who have committed no crime are subject to an arbitrary regime of indefinite detention unworthy of a liberal democracy, and it is driving them to despair.
Given that Australia, by bipartisan fiat, is responsible for engineering these circumstances, the only moral thing to do right now is get people out of danger, particularly kids – a cohort of innocents owed a higher duty of care.
But I’d suggest we hold off on the celebrations. A few things need to be said.
The first is the Morrison government has the power to get everyone out of offshore detention right now – not just the at-risk children, on an unofficial timetable of Christmas – but everyone.
It is possible to do this without opening the floodgates. Shaun Hanns, a former Department of Home Affairs official who quit his job in the refugee processing area this month because he couldn’t remain at his post in good conscience, has argued persuasively that boat turnbacks is the critical policy intervention that has turned the tide of unauthorised boat arrivals – not indefinite offshore detention, which has become cruelty for its own sake.
The second thing to say is the now-benevolent government that resolved to rescue vulnerable children from harm is the same government that has strenuously resisted medical transfers of people on Nauru to Australia, forcing the courts to act to safeguard their wellbeing.
Where will these people ultimately be resettled? Perhaps sensing the prospect of a softening in the prime minister’s office, Tony Abbott has been quick out of the blocks to declare it will N-O-T be in Australia.
On Wednesday the former prime minister said people were being removed from Nauru on a “on a case-by-case basis if that is required for urgent and significant medical treatment”.
Would they then stay in Australia? “Nope,” Abbott said. “They are coming to Australia to be treated but the government has made its position absolutely crystal clear that people who come to Australia illegally by boat will never be able to settle here permanently.”
Peter Dutton, echoed that sentiment, telling 2GB: “We’ve been very clear that when they receive medical assistance, then the expectation is that they will return to their country of origin.”
There is talk around the traps that the UN high commissioner for refugees is working to persuade New Zealand to increase its longstanding offer of resettlement for 150 people to more like 500. Some refugees have gone to the US under the resettlement agreement struck by Malcolm Turnbull and Barack Obama but, even if the US takes 1,200, that won’t clear the full cohort.
And what about the loathed people-smugglers? Does it reboot the trade, setting off the ranters and the shock jocks, creating opportunities for more zero-sum partisan politics, stalling progress on a more permanent solution to our self-created debacle?
So, sure. Let’s be grateful that kids are finally coming to safety. But let’s also be clear that, on this most vexed of issues, there is a very long road ahead.