On 16 January four refugees flew from Port Moresby to be resettled in Canada; they had been in Papua New Guinea for nine and half years. About 88 of the refugees forcibly exiled from Australia to Manus Island in 2013 are still in PNG.
Anthony Albanese visited PNG on 12 and 13 January and became the first foreign head of state to address the PNG parliament. Albanese said nothing of the refugees who had been sent to Manus Island in 2013 when Albanese was deputy prime minister in the Rudd Labor government that imprisoned them offshore.
Kevin Rudd held a press conference with PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neil on 19 July 2013, announcing that asylum-seekers who arrived by boat would be sent to Manus Island, never to resettle in Australia.
Then Coalition leader Tony Abbott welcomed the announcement as “a promising development in offshore processing”. He went on to turn back asylum boats and make Manus Island a charnel house of abuse and torture.
But Albanese said nothing about that. He was in PNG to announce a new security pact promising increased defence cooperation and more money to increase PNG’s “law and order” capacity.
There is a sickening irony that people who were no threat to national security were imprisoned on the PNG navy base on Manus which has now become the site of a joint US, Australia and PNG defence facility to prepare for war on China, also in the name of national security.
Every one of the asylum-seekers imprisoned on Manus Island and Nauru carries the physical and mental scars inflicted by Australia’s deterrence policy. Since December several refugees needing medical treatment have been brought from Nauru to Australia.
But Labor is insisting that it has no responsibility for refugees in PNG since Morrison washed its hands of them with a deal to hand control of refugees to PNG from 1 January 2022.
There has been a list of refugees in need of medical treatment in Australia on the desks of both the Home Affairs and Immigration ministers since Labor was elected last May. Refugees with debilitating mental health issues as well as serious medical and dental problems are being left to suffer.
In January, hundreds of Manus refugees now in Canada, US, France, New Zealand and Australia wrote to Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil asking for the refugees languishing in PNG to be urgently transferred to Australia.
The United Nations Committee Against Torture insists that Australia “maintains legal responsibility because [the refugees and asylum-seekers] remain under Australia’s effective control”.
Labor’s policy commits it to “improve the medical transfer process, establish an Independent Health Advice Panel to provide medical advice and maintain ministerial discretion in all decision making”. But Immigration and Home Affairs have turned a deaf ear to the requests for urgent medical transfers from PNG.
Yet Labor has a particular responsibility. The deal brokered by the Rudd government in 2013 created the horror of offshore detention on Manus Island and introduced the policy that denied offshore refugees resettlement in Australia.
On the very day that Labor was elected last year, it approved the navy sending asylum-seekers intercepted at sea back to Sri Lanka, in line with Scott Morrison’s turnback policy.
Recent news reports have revealed that two other boats with Iraqi and Indian asylum-seekers arrived at Ashmore Reef in Australian territorial waters in December and January respectively. Asylum-seekers on those boats were returned to Indonesia, yet Labor’s policy clearly states, “Protection visa applications made in Australia should be assessed by Australians on Australian Territory.”
Despite numerous announcements that the government was about to grant permanent visas to the 19,000 refugees on temporary protection visas or SHEVs, they are still waiting.
Labor has abolished the Administrative Appeals Tribunal but asylum-seekers refused protection visas by the fast track system overseen by the AAT are also still waiting for justice.
Hazara refugees are protesting in Canberra from 6 February. Palm Sunday “Justice for Refugees” rallies on 2 April will also call for “permanent visas for all”.
By Ian Rintoul