The Politics    Thursday, March 24, 2022

Nine years too long

By Rachel Withers

Image of Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews at a press conference in February. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews at a press conference in February. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

The government’s nine-year wait to accept New Zealand’s offer of refugee resettlement is yet another stain on Australia’s soul

The Morrison government has finally accepted New Zealand’s offer to resettle some of the refugees stuck in Australia’s torturous immigration system – nine long, cruel and pointless years after it was first made. Under the three-year agreement, announced by the two governments today, 450 refugees (150 per year) will be settled in New Zealand, with priority given to about 100 people still on Nauru. This deal is objectively good news (a “blessed, belated relief” as Greens immigration spokesperson Nick McKim put it), although, as Asylum Seeker Resource Centre advocacy director Jana Favero notes, there are still more than 500 other detainees left in limbo. But several questions must be asked here. Why did it take so many years for the government to take up this simple, humanitarian, moral option? Why is it happening now? And who will be held accountable for the needless suffering, the years lost, the lives destroyed, and the billions in wasted costs that occurred thanks to the government’s cynical delay? When it comes to Australia’s offshore detention regime, it’s long been difficult to shake the feeling that the cruelty is the point.

The Coalition has repeatedly rebuffed New Zealand’s standing offer, first made in 2013, to take in refugees whom Australia refuses to settle because they arrived by boat. This is partly because the federal government had failed in its revolting bid to legislate a lifetime ban on refugees returning to Australia at a later date. Announcing the arrangement today, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews tried to make it clear that Australia’s draconian border policies had not changed, adding that anyone who attempted to come by boat in the future would not be resettled here. But the government’s belated backflip makes it clear its original fearmongering argument – that to accept New Zealand’s offer would somehow “restart the boats” – was nothing but a sham, as cynical and baseless as many of the other arguments the government uses against acting humanely in this space.

“This announcement exposes the government’s claim that refugees needed to be exiled and indefinitely detained as a disgusting lie,” tweeted McKim, adding that we cannot forget all the suffering it had caused.

The government deserves very little credit for taking this delayed moral action, after leaving people needlessly suffering for almost a decade. One has to wonder: Why now? What has changed since 2019, when then Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said this offer could only be accepted “when and if” it would not encourage more boat arrivals? The optics, it seems. The government appears to have accepted that community attitudes have shifted on this, that people are no longer comfortable with the needless cruelty as they seemingly once were. Recent media attention on Iranian refugee Mehdi Ali’s outrageous nine-year plight saw him released and resettled in the US earlier this month, and the week following his release the government quietly released nine refugees from Melbourne’s infamous Park Hotel into the community. (Now do the Biloela family.)

Labor has already suggested that this is a poll-driven pivot, with home affairs spokesperson Kristina Keneally telling Guardian Australia that the announcement is about protecting “inner-city Liberal seats”. The exact timing, meanwhile, feels like a distraction, with many people wondering if this has anything to do with allegations surrounding the prime minister’s spiritual mentor.

It’s obvious this decision would already have been made, but one still has to wonder what the effect might have been of former Socceroo and activist Craig Foster’s powerful speech to the National Press Club yesterday – in which he noted Australia treats animals better than humans. “We must break the cycle to ensure this senseless destruction of innocent lives never happens again,” he tweeted today.

Today is a day for celebration on two fronts. The first is that some of this government-induced cruelty, done in our name, is about to come to an end. The second is that it would seem to prove, as columnist Paul Bongiorno put it, that “refugee bashing is no longer a vote winner” in Australia. But amid that celebration, it’s hard not to shake the “nine years too late” feeling, something which has shown up in response after response, whether from Foster or the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which has long been calling on the government to take up the offer. 

The suffering of these people is finally going to be put to an end, though it's clear that the enormous toll it has taken on them cannot be undone. And it should be a permanent stain on our nation that nine years of this (and more) was allowed to occur at all.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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