Offshore detention cannot last
When it comes to refugees, we should take a leaf out of Malcolm Fraser’s book

It’s undoubtedly true that the current situation on Manus Island and Nauru is untenable. There are very clear lessons from the past that show indefinite offshore detention simply cannot last. Under John Howard, the majority of people who were sent to offshore detention were eventually resettled in Australia. We will likely see the same result this time and we need to do everything we can to make sure it happens sooner, rather than later.

There are many other lessons that can be learnt from the past and I want to talk about one in particular.

When faced with a huge migration event in the wake of the Vietnam War, Malcolm Fraser had a choice to make. He could have played cheap, political games by exacerbating people’s fears and demonising those who were seeking asylum in Australia. In other words, he could have done as Howard, Gillard, Rudd, Abbott and Turnbull have done after him, by warning of terrorists on boats and jobs evaporating into thin air, but he didn’t.

Instead he chose the opposite path. Throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s, Malcolm Fraser pioneered a response to the Vietnam crisis that was as exceptional in its bravery as it was in its generosity. By giving tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees safe passage to Australia, he offered them protection while giving our country a generation of committed and loyal new citizens.

The Liberal and Labor parties of today want us to forget that. They want us to think that there are only two options; either be cruel to refugees or open the borders and see people die needlessly at sea. They want you to forget that there is another way.

The Greens believe that Australia can once again lead a genuine humanitarian response in our region, as we did under Malcolm Fraser. By setting up reception centres in Indonesia and Malaysia, where people’s claims for protection can be processed quickly before they are brought directly to Australia, we could undercut the people smuggler’s business model and stop the boats in a humane and caring way.

Those who are denied protection would be sent home immediately and they would know that any future attempts to reach Australia would be pointless.

By following this model that has been proven to work in the past, we could once again bring a generation of new Australians here safely. We could be playing our part in the region and helping to protect families who are fleeing the crisis in the Middle East before they risk their lives on the open ocean. The unfortunate political reality, though, is that there are votes in being cruel to people seeking asylum.

If the Australian Government actually cared about saving lives at sea, they would be doing what many other nations and non-government organisations are now doing in Europe: searching for and rescuing unseaworthy boats before they start to sink. Furthermore, making multiple massive cuts to Australia’s foreign aid budget over the years has done nothing but drive more people into the hands of people smugglers, because they have no other practical option.

The Australian people have been significantly let down by their political leaders in recent years. Whether we’re talking about Australia’s response to people seeking asylum or the horrors of the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, we have a lot to learn from the lessons of the past.

The simple fact of the matter is that those in our offshore camps have nowhere to go. They will need to be brought to Australia eventually and the government should get on and do it, before more damage is done.


This is a response to Robert Manne’s proposal to resettle refugees detained offshore in Australia. Read a response from Julian Burnside and another from Frank Brennan.

Sarah Hanson-Young
Sarah Hanson-Young is an Australian Greens Senator for South Australia. @sarahinthesen8

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