Senator Nick McKim, Greens spokesperson for refugee issues, recently visited the refugee detainees on Manus Island, now being moved to Port Moresby. Green Issue asked him for his current thoughts on the refugee situation in Australia.
- From your recent visit, what is your assessment of the physical and mental condition of long-term detainees on Manus Island?
Things are as bad as they have ever been. The election result sent people into a deep state of despair from which many have not recovered. It is nothing less than a humanitarian calamity and it must be ended.
- Is the Medevac law being effectively implemented?
Yes. There are dozens of people who are now in Australia and receiving medical treatment as a direct result of the Medevac regime. It is absolutely essential that this legislation stay in place so that every person in offshore detention gets the medical treatment they need.
One major problem is that about 50 people who sought asylum in Australia are being detained in the Bomana prison in Port Moresby, including ten who have been approved for transfer to Australia under the Medevac laws.
The Australian government has washed its hands of this problem, claiming it’s a ‘matter for PNG’. This is unacceptable as the men are being kept in solitary confinement and denied access to communications to try to coerce them into agreeing to leave PNG.
- What are the prospects of ending detention on Nauru and in PNG, and what can we best do to hasten it?
We cannot underestimate the power of public pressure in shaping decision making. The #KidsOffNauru campaign was a success because of a simple, clear demand. The best thing that people can do is keep the pressure on their elected representatives and never give up hope that we can change this policy.
- What is happening about boat turn-backs, as this is not publicised? Particularly, what is the fate of boats once turned back – do they safely return to a port?
People are still being turned back to face possible persecution, and in some cases they are being handed back to the regimes they fled. We simply do not know what happens to people when they are turned around – whether they have arrived safely, whether they are imprisoned. And the reason we don’t know is because the government has brought down a veil of secrecy around their policies.
- Why the emphasis on “boats” when most refugee aspirants arrive by air under another type of visa (e.g. student)?
The scare campaign against people arriving on boats has been running for decades by the right wing parties and the Murdoch media. It has been brutal and relentless and led to the misery of thousands. But we should not ever assume that the majority of people support offshore detention.
- In view of likely increases in genuine “conflict” and “climate” refugees, how do we set up a regional system to manage this?
The Greens believe we should increase our annual humanitarian intake, and work with organisations like the UNHCR to establish a system in partner countries to assess people’s claims quickly and efficiently. We also believe people should be given a dignity package, which would allow them to access healthcare and education while their claims are processed.
- Considering likely increasing numbers of refugees globally, what proportion of Australia’s total migrant intake should be allocated to refugees?
Australia should increase its annual intake of refugees to 50,000 people per year – that has been the Greens policy for a number of years. This reflects the obligation we have as a rich country to do more to respond to the rapidly increasing number of displaced people around the world.
- Of the different types of refugees (e.g. conflict, climate, economic) from many different countries, what should Australia’s criteria and priorities be for acceptance?
We should prioritise on the basis of greatest need, but we should also take into account the fact that we are the wealthiest country in our region and should play a leadership role in the South Pacific.
- Assuming there would be a limit to the number of refugees that Australia could reasonably accept, what should be Australia’s role in easing the global refugee problem, ranging from alleviating reasons as to why they are fleeing origin countries to assisting other possible recipient countries to accommodate them?
There is a great deal we can do! We could act to promote peace throughout the world, boost our aid budget, and end the unquestioning military relationship with countries like the United States and Saudi Arabia.
We must also act urgently to tackle the climate emergency, which is already displacing people around the world.
- For those asylum seekers in Australia, what should be done to hasten their assessment and ensure their basic living costs and conditions during assessment?
The easiest way to support people awaiting assessment in Australia is through the Status Resolution Support Service, which was cut by the Liberals last year. It is crucial in helping people with the necessities of life and providing them with trauma and torture counselling.
- For failed asylum seekers who are deported, does Australia have any responsibility for their fate when returned to the country/circumstance from which they fled?
As a signatory to the Refugee Convention, Australia must never deport people back to danger or persecution. So yes, we have a responsibility to people who have sought our aid.
- What about Australia’s onshore immigration detention system?
This is a de facto prison system in which many people are imprisoned indefinitely at the whim of the Minister.
We have recently discovered that the Liberals have spent over $30m to detain the family of four from Biloela for just two months on Christmas Island. This family should be at home in Biloela rather than in detention at all, but this is a terrible waste of public money which could have been spent on many worthy causes.
There should be a seven day limit on detention in this dehumanising system, unless the courts agree that a longer period is warranted on security grounds.
We also need a Royal Commission in to both offshore and onshore immigration detention to make sure this dark chapter in Australia’s story is never repeated.
- What narratives and actions can better engage the Australian public than we are now doing?
It’s not about narratives so much as conversations – speak to the people around you about the issue. We must never underestimate the sheer number of people who are horrified by the bipartisan policies of cruelty towards refugees and people seeking asylum. Continuing to pressure elected representatives is the best way to change these policies.
Header photo: Nick with refugees on Manus Island in 2017.