As the country reacts to the Nauru files and confirmation the Manus detention centre must close, a new chapter appears to be opening in the refugee debate. By Karen Middleton.

Shifting debate on offshore detention

In two weeks, it will be a year since the body of three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach.

At the time, images of the small, drowned child dressed neatly in red T-shirt, navy pants and shoes, and lying face down at water’s edge, sent a shudder of horror across the world.

It was a galvanising moment, prompting reflection from cabinet room to lounge room on what should be done to protect people fleeing conflict and persecution, and young children in particular.

There have been more such moments since, including the blockade at the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane in February this year, aimed at preventing a one-year-old asylum seeker, known as Baby Asha, from being sent back to offshore detention on Nauru.

For many who feel discomfort at Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, the publication by The Guardian of some 2000 leaked incident reports alleging abuse and mistreatment of and by individuals within the Nauru detention centre has become another such moment.

Opponents of offshore processing of asylum seekers hope the detail in the reports, which included allegations of sexual assault and self-harm, and the worldwide media attention they have attracted, will prove to be a tipping point in Australia’s policy direction.

But publicly at least, the government remains unmoved, convinced it’s only the treatment of asylum-seeker children – and not adults – that upsets the wider population.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has sought to cast doubt on the veracity of the reports. He confirmed the government had received similar information earlier in the year and blamed Save the Children, whose staff worked on Nauru, for leaking the material, accusing it of “running a political campaign”.

“We received correspondence from Save the Children – we do on a regular basis,” Dutton told ABC Radio on Thursday. “They’ve leaked the documents – the 2100 documents that the Guardian is reporting… We will look at each of those cases.”

The executive director of the Australian Council for International Development, Marc Purcell, issued a statement after the interview, saying: “For the second time, an immigration minister has made false allegations without any evidence against an organisation focused on child protection… The last time the government made similar claims against Save the Children a subsequent independent inquiry found them to be false. But today, the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, has tried to shoot the messenger again.”

Dutton, a former Queensland police officer, said he had spent much of his professional career investigating sexual and other assaults.

“I take those issues very seriously and like all Australians I completely abhor any violence, particularly of a sexual nature, against any people, in particular women and children.”

But he accused the media of trivialising the issue by suggesting all of the incidents were serious when they weren’t.

“Many of those reports relate to corporal punishment of children by their own parents,” Dutton said. “They report about some minor assaults by detainees on detainees, refugees on refugees.”

The Nauruan government has also downplayed the reports. “These allegations are unfounded,” Nauruan president Baron Waqa told Channel NewsAsia. “We will continue to get to the bottom of it, but as far as Nauru is concerned, we look at every individual complaint there is and very quickly [they are] being thrown out as things that are made up, a lot of them.”

1 . Labor flags rethink

But the reports have elicited a shift in political emphasis from the Labor opposition, which faces ongoing internal divisions over how to handle refugee policy.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says while Labor continues to support offshore processing, he wants a time limit.

“Let’s be very clear here,” Shorten says. “On one hand, Labor is as committed as the Liberals to stopping the people smugglers from plying their evil trade. But on the other hand we don’t think that that opposition to people smuggling should be used to keep people in indefinite detention.”

The policy itself is not so clear. He doesn’t say how long they should be detained, what should determine the duration, or where they should then go. Like the Coalition, Labor maintains that no one coming to Australia by boat to claim asylum will get to stay.

Shorten also wants a senate inquiry into the reports from Nauru. “I don’t think they can be swept under the carpet and I don’t think we can ignore the fairly significant release of a whole lot of files and complaints,” he says. “Some of them may not be true, but if some of them are true, then it is remiss of us not to act. And the government being put on notice of these complaints becomes culpable if they refuse to act.”

On Wednesday, 103 former non-government workers from the Nauru and Manus Island centres issued a statement saying they have already given evidence of serious problems at the centres to other inquiries and a senate inquiry now is not enough.

Shadow Immigration Minister Shayne Neumann says the opposition is willing to work with the government to find a bipartisan solution. The government isn’t convinced.

While it insists there will be no change to its Nauru arrangements, it is being forced to make changes on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea following the PNG Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this year that Australia’s detention centre there is illegal.

The two governments announced this week that the centre would close. Neither could say when.

2 . Search for a regional solution

Peter Dutton says in the short term detainees found to be refugees will have only two options: agree to settle in PNG or be sent back to their country of origin.

There are two problems with the first option. Despite having committed previously to resettling the refugees, and having been funded accordingly, the severely cash-strapped PNG government is now demanding more money to fulfil Australia’s request.

And second, the refugees don’t want to stay there.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s director of legal advocacy, Daniel Webb, visited Manus Island last week.

“This arrangement to resettle people in PNG was announced three years ago,” Webb told ABC Radio. “Since then, we have had three deaths and three years of suffering. Resettlement in PNG is not safe or viable. If it was, it would have happened three years ago.”

Fewer than 20 men confirmed as refugees have been resettled in PNG, with some seeking to return to the Manus Island centre out of fears for their safety. Dutton says hundreds who were rejected as refugees have been sent home.

But Dutton blames the low settlement rate on refugee advocates in Australia. “We have advocates who think they are well-intentioned here in Australia who keep messaging, sending Facebook messages and social media messages saying, ‘Don’t accept the settlement packages, stay in the centre because eventually the Australian government will change its mind and you’ll come and settle in Australia.’ I mean, that has been very counterproductive.”

He insists he is still looking for a third country to take them. He can’t say where.

Other senior Liberals say that’s because there isn’t anywhere left that is a viable option. One told The Saturday Paper that the government may eventually have to bring the refugees to Australia after all.

So far, its attempts to find a regional solution have come to nought.

The $55 million arrangement with Cambodia has resulted in only five asylum seekers detained on Nauru agreeing to go there. Four have subsequently left and returned home.

Late last year, the Australian government approached the Philippines to consider also taking asylum seekers, offering $150 million over five years. But President Benigno Aquino said his country had “no capacity”.

3 . No longer ‘on-water matters’

The Coalition government says its policy hasn’t changed and won’t. But it has shifted its approach on communication. Whereas previously ministers dismissed questions about “on-water matters” using operational security to justify refusing to confirm if boats carrying asylum seekers had been turned back, now such events are announced.

In May, a boat carrying Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers reached the Cocos Islands.

In June, 21 Vietnamese asylum seekers were intercepted, had their claims processed at sea, and were returned to Vietnam, one of 28 boats reported to have been turned around since the Coalition took office in 2013.

On Wednesday, Dutton issued a statement revealing another boat carrying six Sri Lankans had been turned back earlier in the week. On Thursday, it announced the Sri Lankan Navy had detained a further 18 people on board a fishing vessel attempting to “come to Australia illegally”.

The boats have not actually stopped. But they are being turned back. The new communications strategy would seem to support the argument increasingly made by those wanting policy change that the act of turning boats back, not offshore detention, is the greater deterrent.

Pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull from his small-l liberal constituency for a more humane response. But the conservatives in his party want no change and overall the Coalition is convinced most Australians want to retain a tough stance, albeit one that ensures children are protected.

4 . New council calls for compromise

In the past week, a self-styled council of respected elders has proposed a compromise.

Prominent jurist from the Australian Catholic University, Father Frank Brennan, joined World Vision chief and Baptist churchman Tim Costello, leading academic from La Trobe University Robert Manne, and former immigration department head and diplomat John Menadue in writing an open letter proposing the Turnbull government close the offshore processing centres and allow some refugees to settle in Australia while retaining a policy of turning boats back.

The four say there needs to be some kind of measure to discourage people from taking to sea.

They argue it was the turn-back element of the strategy, and not the practice of detaining people offshore, that slowed the flow of boats to Australia between 2002 and 2007.

These advocates for change identify two potential obstacles: that the proponents of offshore processing will argue that any action that “humanises” the issue will encourage a people-smuggling resurgence; and that supporters of asylum seekers will “not countenance the kind of policy compromise we have reluctantly come to accept”.

A former first assistant secretary in the international and refugee division of the immigration department, Arja Keski-Nummi, has been saying publicly for more than two years that the so-called Pacific Solution is unsustainable. This week she has stepped up her criticism.

“If we are not finally moved to demand a more humane system then we truly are sleepwalkers,” Keski-Nummi wrote online. “…Not only should we know what is happening and what is being done in our name; to stand by, and not ask, makes us complicit in these acts of unbearable cruelty.”

She argued those currently on Nauru found to be refugees should be settled in Australia “before a greater human tragedy occurs”.

Earlier this year, a former deputy secretary in the immigration department who had been involved in negotiating the agreement with Malaysia in 2011 added his voice to those calling for a more creative approach.

Now at the Australian National University, Peter Hughes suggests people will need to be brought to Australia, even if only in the interim.

“The longer people are marooned in the centres, without any clear resolution of their future, the more risk of permanent damage to their mental health and wellbeing and the greater the hazard to the government and those administering the policy,” Hughes wrote on the eve of the federal election campaign.

“The clock is now ticking very loudly. The only question for the government now is the formula by which the people in PNG and Nauru are brought to Australia (and perhaps New Zealand). There are different ways this can be done, even if it involves only bringing people to Australia temporarily, at least initially. Creative thinking is needed within government on how this can be done and how it can be explained, given the entrenched positions taken so far. Different arrangements might be needed for those who are refugees and those who are not.”

Earlier this week, former prime minister Tony Abbott said he regretted the strident language he used in opposing the Malaysia Solution in 2011. While he still believed it wouldn’t have worked, he said letting it proceed “would have been a step back from the hyper-partisanship that now poisons our public life”. His comments prompted furious shouts of hypocrisy from the opposition.

5 . Still driven by politics

Former diplomat and senior officer in the international policy and strategy division of defence Allan Behm argues the issue has been wrongly positioned as one of border protection, and this is preventing it being resolved.

Behm, who also worked as former Labor minister Greg Combet’s chief of staff, argues the Labor opposition’s position is still driven by politics.

“Shorten is not actually responding to the refugee issue,” Behm told The Saturday Paper. “He is responding to the fact that Labor cannot afford to be wedged.”

He argues the money spent on offshore processing should instead go towards properly funding a “port of first refuge” system through the United Nations in Indonesia and Malaysia.

He also believes Australia should establish what he calls “an international ginger group” to look for a solution, suggesting the existing Bali process – involving more than 50 countries and organisations and with its focus on people smuggling as an issue of transnational crime – is not enough.

“This is a diplomatic issue, it’s not a security issue,” Behm says, “and to misrepresent it as a security issue is to play into that insecurity, xenophobia and lack of confidence that exists already… At some point Australia is going to have to take a moral course. This doesn’t represent the sort of Australia that we say that we are.”

This week, New Zealand’s Labour opposition spokesman on foreign affairs, David Shearer, expressed a similar sentiment.

 “This policy is unsustainable,” Shearer told TVNZ. “I mean, it’s almost like Australia has lost its moral compass in terms of where it’s going. Australia’s reputation has been diminished as a result of that. And… as New Zealanders, if we can do something in order to be able to bring this to an end, I think we should put up our hands and say, ‘Look, this is the Pacific, it’s our backyard.’ We should be doing something as well.” 

New Zealand has offered previously to take some refugees. The offer is yet to be taken up.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2016 as "Shifting debate on offshore detention".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on September 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.