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FOUR years ago the then-Labor government, in the run up to a general election, which it was clear it would lose, implemented the policy of mandatory, indefinite off-shore detention for asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat.
Labor’s policy was embraced by the incoming Liberal government. Despite the New Guinea Supreme Court finding over a year ago that the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island breached the human rights of the detainees and was illegal, they remain trapped in New Guinea.
The consequences for the welfare of the men detained by us on Manus have been profound and tragic. Six of them are dead. Almost all of them have experienced trauma as a result of their incarceration and treatment by Australia, which will have severe negative consequences on them for the rest of their lives. We have knowingly harmed these people.
As recently as the last few weeks the Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, again characterised the asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru as “economic refugees” despite the fact that a clear majority have been accorded refugee status.
Two months ago an Iranian refugee, Hamed Shamshiripour, died on Manus Island. His death prompted Roger Cohen, a columnist with “The New York Times” to express the depth of the disgust that he and people around the world, including in Australia, feel about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.
He said: “Australia has reduced the men, women and children on the islands (Manus and Nauru) to namelessness, referring to them by registration numbers. Asked their names, kids often give a number. It’s all they know. At least the digits are not tattooed.
“As refugees have committed suicide, been killed or sexually abused, Dutton has dismissed them as illiterates bent on stealing Australian jobs.”
Another refugee died on Manus Island last week. It is reported that he committed suicide. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten have been silent about his death. Nevertheless, one hopes that suggestions they will each have privately reflected that at least he didn’t die at sea are too cynical.
My fear is that the continuing refusal of both the ALP, of which I am a member, and the Liberal Party, to engage with the community or be open about how they intend to bring this shameful episode in our history to a close will inevitably end in more deaths and further physical and mental harm.
It is clear that the two parties are engaged in a morally bankrupt contest of wills – a kind of Russian roulette – with the first to blink to be immediately damned by the other as “soft” on border protection and pilloried as such all the way to the next election.
While the US has agreed to swap some asylum seekers it is almost certain that hundreds will be left behind and that their mental torture and trauma will continue unless or until they are repatriated to Australia or a third country that can guarantee their welfare.
It is past time that the government and the opposition found the maturity and humanity to resolve this matter. If the two parties cannot agree on a way forward then it’s time that the better man of the two leaders rose to the demands of the occasion, accepted responsibility for the harm done, apologised for their and our collective failure as a nation and resolved to find a new way.
A first step, which I urge the leader of my party, Bill Shorten, to take could be to contact the family, in Sri Lanka, of the latest asylum seeker who died on Manus Island, extend condolences on behalf of the Labor Party and Australia for his death, apologise that he died in our care and undertake to facilitate the repatriation of his body to his grieving family.
Surely that is what all good people in Australia would expect if it was their son who had died and would applaud if our leaders extended that simple courtesy and respect to others on our behalf.