}

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Australia’s shame

There’s a story about Australia that’s well-known in this part of the world, but not much beyond. It’s about how Australia set-up prison camps for people who have tried—and failed— to illegally reach Australia by boat. People have been stuck in those camps for years, and in many cases it’s because of the Australian government. Then, when New Zealand raised the issue by reaffirming its offer to take some refugees, it was made out to be the ogre. But New Zealand isn’t the reason for this situation—it’s just trying to be part of the solution.

Australia set up the camps to prevent “asylum seekers”, as they’re often called, from reaching Australia’s shores. The government says that since setting up the camps, no asylum seeker has drowned at sea, and that, they say, proves their harsh policies are effective. The problem, of course, is that correlation is not causation, and there are probably other factors involved, ones that don’t reinforce a largely political narrative. Regardless, Australia also doesn’t seem to want to do anything that would settle the refugees cases at least in part because it believes doing so would encourage more people to board boats bound for Australia. It is, in their view, a sort of “tough love”.

The situation at the facility on Manus Island became dire when the Australian government wanted to move asylum seekers to new facilities, and they didn’t want to go, fearing violent reprisals from locals, among other things. Australia, in a frankly petulant response, simply shut off the water and electricity and ended routine medical assistance, effectively turning their backs on the men remaining, perhaps hoping to make them desperate enough to go to the new camps. This seems a foolish attitude, since these are people who were desperate enough to cross oceans in rickety boats, so defying Australia’s demands would seem like an easy thing for them. It also opened Australia to worldwide condemnation.

Australia’s treatment of detainees, especially on Manus Island after they retaliated against those who wouldn’t leave, has caught the attention of SOME around the world. For example, according to a major piece in the New York Times: “Veteran United Nations officials said this month they had never seen a wealthy democracy go to such extremes to punish asylum seekers and push them away.”

Meanwhile, New Zealand had an election and a new, more Left-leaning government took over. New Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern repeated the former National Party-led Government’s offer to take 150 refugees, and Australia at first flatly rejected the offer, then, after more international attention, softened their attitude somewhat, suggesting they’d consider it.

Australian politicians—and conservatives in New Zealand—attacked the new NZ government, saying they were “meddling” in Australia’s “domestic” policies, that we must never upset Australia because we need them far more than they need us, that the new government was being naive and even a bit childish. All this despite the fact the offer—originally from a conservative New Zealand government—had been on the table for a very long time. Clearly pure politics was the sole reason for the criticism of the NZ government.

However, Australia was obviously rattled by the attention on its appalling treatment of the refugees. In addition to verbal attacks from Australian government politicians, the Australian government also leaked unsubstantiated and uninvestigated claims that men on Manus Island were guilty of child sexual abuse. The smear was an attempt to convince the world that the detainees were all “bad” people (a line of attack picked up by conservatives in New Zealand) and therefore they “deserve”, as the narrative goes, their harsh treatment.

The Australian government has also repeated its claims that it intercepted and turned away “several” boats filled with refugees headed for New Zealand. They’ve never publicly released any proof that this claim is actually true. Is there any?

So, what’s going on here? First, Australia apparently really does believe that their harsh treatment of asylum seekers has stopped the flow of such people. Whether that’s actually the reason for the reduction or not is beside the point: They seem to sincerely believe that.

Second, Australia doesn’t like being told what to do by anyone, including the United Nations, and definitely not New Zealand. It will only change its treatment of asylum seekers if it suits them.

Third, and related to the second reason, it’s good politics in Australia. Australian voters have rewarded tough treatment of asylum seekers, most recently in returning the conservative Liberal-National Coalition Government to power. Because the asylum seekers are held in remote facilities, well out of view of Australians and their news media, it becomes a case of “out of sight, out of mind”. The Australian public never sees the extent of the harsh treatment, perhaps precisely so they can’t care about it. I don’t know that any country’s people would be any different under similar circumstances (for example, Guantánamo). This is also why the detention centres are NOT in Australia.

Finally, there’s a particular reason the Australian government is opposed to New Zealand taking any asylum seekers, in addition to all the reasons above. If the refugees are granted permanent residence in New Zealand, and then become citizens, they can move to Australia to live and work. One of the main reasons for Australia’s ongoing crackdown on the rights of New Zealanders living in Australia is because the Australian government believes it’s too easy for people to gain New Zealand citizenship, and that they use it as a means to settle in Australia legally. The truth is, they’re right in that a foreigner who couldn’t qualify to legally live and work in Australia could do so if they become a New Zealand citizen first. That’s even true for me.

However, it’s not quite as easy to become a New Zealand citizen as Australia seems to think it is, but that’s still their view, and it is the basis for much of their government’s hostility to New Zealanders living in their country and why they dismiss the simple repeating of NZ’s existing offer to take 150 refugees.

Where does this leave us? Nowhere. The United States would probably be the ONLY country in the world that might have some influence over Australia, but it no longer cares about human rights, is openly hostile to immigration (legal or not), and will do nothing to ease people’s suffering. The current occupier of the White House famously hung up on the Australian Prime Minister the first time they spoke because he was angry that President Obama had agreed to accept some of these same refugees, something he called "the worst deal ever". He also referred to the phone call as “the worst call by far”. While that was all probably mostly about the current occupant’s abject hatred of President Obama, it nevertheless damaged US-Australian relations.

New Zealand has no leverage with Australia, either, for completely different reasons. Despite a relationship forged on foreign battlefields, Australia mainly tolerates New Zealand, as one might an annoying younger sibling, but they don’t really care what we think, whether it’s about them, world affairs, or even how they treat New Zealand citizens living in that country.

There is one possible glimmer of hope, though: If the United Nations could somehow broker an agreement to at least remove the refugees that the UN has recognised as genuine. But, with the UN both cowardly and compromised these days, I wouldn’t hold my breath about that, either.

So, the situation shows no sign of improving any time soon. It’s not even clear that a change of government would matter. What is clear is that barring the UN suddenly growing a metaphorical backbone, or regime change in the United States, there’s nothing that can push this situation toward resolution.

And that, really, is the world’s shame.

Tip o' the Hat to Roger Green for the link to the NYT article.

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