• And of course at the forefront of the minds of all those trapped on Nauru and Manus is what might happen when Donald Trump officially becomes president. (AAP)Source: AAP
Comment: Australia's offshore detention policy in 2016 was branded as shameful and immoral. So what do we do now, as we approach a new year, to make 2017 a year of positive difference rather than one of repetitive despair?
By
Dr Graham Thom, Refugee Coordinator at Amnesty International Australia

22 Dec 2016 - 3:11 PM  UPDATED 22 Dec 2016 - 3:47 PM

Inhumane, immoral, disastrous, shameful, amounting to torture - these are just some of the descriptions that have been used in 2016 for Australia’s policy of offshore detention.

So as the year draws to a close, do we wring our hands in despair? Or can we end the year with at least a glimmer of hope that in 2017 things will be different?

In 2016, global displacement once again reached record levels, spurred on by the worsening crisis in Syria, as well as violence in South Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet in the face of this crisis, Australia, despite increasing global criticism, has continued to maintain its hard line towards those trying to reach our country by boat - offering a system of punishment rather than protection for people who dare to seek safety.

As the year ends, it is clear that the Government has finally come to the same conclusion that many of us knew all along, that offshore processing is unnecessary, costly, damaging and simply untenable.

So as the year draws to a close, do we wring our hands in despair? Or can we end the year with at least a glimmer of hope that in 2017 things will be different?

Even the governments of Nauru and Papua New Guinea have said that the long-term settlement of people in their territories is not sustainable. And at the UN Refugee Summit in September, Nauru called on the international community to come forward and provide a third country alternative. Yet unknown to most was that for the last 12 months Australia had been secretly negotiating with the USA to provide just that.

As I write this, USA officials are interviewing refugees on Nauru, and we have been told all those currently recognised as refugees will be eligible for resettlement to the USA. It’s a welcome move, but there are numerous questions that loom over this ‘deal’. What will happen to the approximately 370 people currently in Australia undergoing medical treatment?

Do they really have to go back to Manus Island or Nauru and potentially wait up to two years for processing, without the appropriate medical care? What will happen to families where a husband or wife is already an Australian resident? Should they volunteer to go to the USA knowing they may never see their partner again? Further, what will happen to those not accepted by the USA?

And of course at the forefront of the minds of all those trapped on Nauru and Manus is what might happen when Donald Trump moves from being USA president-elect to USA president. Given statements made by the president-elect during the election campaign, there are real fears he will not honour this deal.

Do they really have to go back to Manus Island or Nauru and potentially wait up to two years for processing, without the appropriate medical care?

What is clear is that the apparent hope by the Australian Prime Minister that this issue will somehow go away is unlikely to be achieved in 2017. That is, unless the Government makes the responsible decision and settles the individuals here in Australia. Arguments that this will somehow re-start the people smuggling trade are not borne out by historical evidence. Under the Howard-era Pacific Solution, the vast majority of those found to be refugees on Nauru and Manus, over 700 people, were quietly and with limited fuss brought to Australia. By and large these individuals are now ordinary productive residents and citizens of this country.

The numbers are not the issue either. Australia has already stated that it will be increasing its refugee intake next year under its offshore humanitarian program, from 13,750 to 16,250 (beginning in July). All of the additional 12,000 Syrian and Iraqis are likely to be resettled by mid 2017.

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Despite the increase, Australia’s humanitarian program remains historically small when taken as a percentage of our overall migration program. In comparison, Canada plans to resettled approximately 44,000 refugees by the end of 2016. At a time of global crisis Australia can and should do more.

At the UN Refugee Summit in September, the Prime Minister also noted that one of Australia’s key pillars to help address global displacement was effective international and regional cooperation. Yet, very little detail has been given on how Australia will help promote greater protection for vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers in the region.

In fact in Indonesia, there are 15,000 people of concern to UNHCR currently living in limbo, with no official legal status or work rights, yet Australia continues to refuse to resettle anyone arriving in Indonesia post July 2014. Without legal pathways to protection, these people will have little alternative but to put their future in the hands of people smugglers to find safety for themselves and their families.

Six decades ago, as WWII came to an end and the world faced record numbers of people displaced from their homes, Australia was instrumental in bringing the Refugee Convention into force. Given the current scale of global displacement, higher than at any time in history, it is crucial Australia returns to a position of leadership and plays a positive role in refugee protection in 2017.

Without legal pathways to protection, these people will have little alternative but to put their future in the hands of people smugglers to find safety for themselves and their families.

So no matter what the outcome of the USA deal, in 2017 a new and better path must be found, the Government must look to humane solutions that both protect the rights of people seeking safety and reduce deaths at sea – these are twin goals that should be the bedrock of any asylum seeker policy.

This means ending the offshore warehousing of people on Nauru and Manus and closing the detention centres for good, increasing Australia’s humanitarian intake program to take our fair share, and working collaboratively with our neighbours to ensure not only that refugee rights are respected but durable solutions are found, including expanding safe and legal pathways for those seeking asylum.

If 2016 was the year the lid was lifted on the suffering being inflicted on people at the hands of the Government’s refugee policies, let's make sure 2017 is the year something is done about it.

The solutions are there. It’s  simply a matter of political will to make them happen.

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