Australian asylum seeker policy still haunting national politics | Pacific Beat

Australian asylum seeker policy still haunting national politics

Australian asylum seeker policy still haunting national politics

Updated 23 November 2012, 10:58 AEDT

While Australia expands its offshore asylum seeker processing centres, its government is still struggling to convince people it is the right thing to do.

The issue has failed to convince many in Australian society that it is the right way to deal with those arriving by boat or other unofficial means, something not helped by continuing stories of protests on Nauru and reports from Amnesty International criticising conditions there.

Pacific Correspondent Campbell Cooney prepared this report.

Presenter: Campbell Cooney

Speaker:Greens Senator Sarah Hanson Young.Dr Graham Thom, Amnesty International, Australian independant senator Nick Xenaphon.

Australia's Foreign Minister Bob Carr. Barrie Cassidy, Presenter of the ABC's political analysis program Insiders.Chris Bowen, Australia's Immigration Minister

HANSON YOUNG: We know that there is a crisis of cruelty unfolding on Nauru in these detention centres. The health conditions of these individuals are horrific.

COONEY: Those words follow the criticisms made in Nauru yesterday by Amnesty International after its inspection.

One of the inspectors Dr Graham Thom says the rights group is concerned about the mental health of detainees, who will face a long wait to be processed, and also about the poor conditions people are living in.

THOM: When it's raining, as it is now, the tents are leaking and they wanted to show us how their bedding got at night, a number are developing rashes because of the heat and the damp conditions they're sleeping in.

COONEY: But Australia's Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, has rejected Amnesty's concerns.

CARR: I don't think they're valid and I just underline again that we are not going to have people smugglers determine Australian immigration policy and yet that happens unless you can have offshore processing. And we're entitled to have it. I mean the Australian people want it.

COONEY: While conditions on Nauru are the target of critics, Australia's Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, has announced work will soon begin there building permanent accommodation. He's also announced the start of processing on PNG's Manus Island.

BOWEN: The first transfer of asylum seekers to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, was undertaken overnight. This first group of 19 people is made up Iranians and Sri Lankans. It also consisted of family groups. At this stage, family groups are best accommodated on Manus Island as opposed to Nauru.

COONEY; But if the Australian government was hoping the recommencement of offshore processing would remove the issue from the Australian public's attention, and its media's news agenda, that has so far failed to happen.

Barrie Cassidy is the presenter of the ABC's political analysis program Insiders.

CASSIDY: Let me just put it in perspective for a start, that it should be an issue of not much consequence. The number of designated refugees were about 30,000. Canada has five times that many, Pakistan has 1.7 million. The number of people waiting to be processed in Australia, we're not in the top 40 in the world. So that gives you a sense of where the story ought to sit. Of course, it's nothing like that. The perception in Australia is much greater than that. It's constantly out there as an issue and every twist and turn is reported, because it's politically difficult and any issue that's politically difficult and puts pressure on both the government and the Opposition is always going to be enthusiastically reported by the media. The Coalition has always exploited this issue, while the Labor Party's in government and they've exaggerated the issue and because it's such a toxic issue, then governments fall in line and they pander to those kind of perceptions and that's the way the politics has been played, and it's difficult, particularly difficult for the Labor Party at the moment, because the one area where I think this issue bites hardest is in Sydney and particularly in the Western suburbs of Sydney. You've got this sort of uncontrolled urban sprawl, overcrowding, inadequate public transport and so people get this sense that they just simply don't want more people wherever they're coming from. Labor is struggling to deal with that. It just happens that Labor is most vulnerable in New South Wales. If there was a swing of 1.5 per cent  against Labor at the next election, four seats would fall in New South Wales. A swing of five per cent, ten seats would fall. So it just shows you how crucial New South Wales is to the outcome of the next election.

COONEY: Some of the language that's being used now. I keep hearing these words economic immigrants, involuntary immigration. It seems to be trying to soften up the view and the way that you described the people who are sort of I suppose tied up in this who are at the worst?

CASSIDY: Yeah, I think there's some tolerance for the issue beyond New South Wales. I think that's though where these feelings run at their highest and that's where you can run all sorts of theories. The shock jocks on radio run this stuff everyday, and the perception they put out there is that all of these people coming out here are economic refugees, very few of them have a legitimate case. The fact that 80 or 90 per cent of them are eventually shown to be genuine refugees just seemed to escape their attention. But that's the line that they constantly run. They also talk up this idea that these people are somehow freeloading, that they're getting benefits that Australians don't get in terms of Australian welfare recipients and the government again sort of panders to that sort of prejudice. The move that they've now made, they're saying that some will go to Manus Island, as well as Nauru. But because so many have arrived over the last few months, some will now go out into the community on bridging visas, but the government very quickly adds, but we will not be giving them a free ride. They will not be getting the benefits that some others get, they will not have opportunities to get jobs. So again, the government is saying to the electorate, we're going to make it hard, we're going to make it hard on these people. Just one step short of saying, we're punishing these people. We're going to make hard and their rational is the harder they make it, the less likely these people will take the dangerous journey by boat.

COONEY: And it's exactly that defence being used by ministers in Australia's Government.

Foreign Minister Bob Carr.

CARR: The arrivals would have been markedly higher without our commitment to offshore processing.

REPORTER: So you're saying it would be markedly higher than 7,000 people?

CARR Would have been markedly higher and we've got no alternative but to implement the policies recommended to us by an expert panel.

COONEY: And in his latest press briefing, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen was asked this question.

REPORTER: You were in reputation cruelty frankly that Australia is now trailing overseas?

BOWEN: I completely reject that assertion. Obviously every country has a border protection policy that they put in place and every country respects the rights of other countries to implement policies. Now we're asking Amnesty International, we've facilitated their entry to Nauru and the centre, as well as Red Cross. Amnesty International opposed the Nauru detention facility or the Nauru processing facility before they got there. They oppose it after they leave and I'm surprised by that. Of course, if they had constructive suggestions to make we will listen to them, but they have a fundamentally different approach. I believe the overriding, moral and humanitarian obligation on the Australian Government is to stop people drowning at sea.

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