Manus Island: Why Policy Should Account For People

In a decision that has been criticized by his own party, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has refused New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 Manus Island refugees. After deliberations in Sydney on November 5 with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Mr Turnbull announced that although thankful for the offer, the Australian government is prioritising the U.S. refugee resettlement deal that will take up to 1,250 refugees. According to Sky News, 54 refugees have been resettled to the U.S. since the inception of the agreement in 2016.

To appreciate the significance of Turnbull’s refusal of New Zealand’s offer, it is first necessary to understand Australia’s recent foreign policy towards refugees. In an international society that prioritizes state security, the issue of resettling and accepting refugees is of paramount consideration. In an attempt to address this, Australia has, controversially, established immigration detention facilities to process refugees and asylums seekers. Whilst numerable facilities exist, both the New Zealand offer and U.S. agreement aim to resettle refugees from Manus Regional Processing Centre in Papua New Guinea.

Whilst the concept of detention itself has been criticized as inhumane, the conditions for refugees on Manus Island were particularly severe, with many lacking basic amenities and services. After the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea found the Centre to contradict its constitution, and hence, be illegal, in April 2016, the facility began to cease operations, with official closure on October 31, 2017. However, the closure of the Centre has not heralded closure for the remaining refugees. According to ABC News, six hundred men remain, citing that they fear for their safety if they leave. In the wake of recent attacks upon the centre from locals, such fear is warranted.

Fundamentally, refugees that have been processed upon Manus Island have endured inhumane conditions that deprive them of basic human rights. After surviving persecution in their home countries, they now wait in an uncertain limbo; mere objects in political discussion. Through refusing New Zealand’s offer for resettlement, Mr Turnbull is essentially perpetuating this notion of refugees as a problem.

This is not to suggest that this decision has been made from malice. Rather, it highlights how Australia’s focus upon security has resulted in the dehumanization of these refugees. Accounting for his refusal, Mr Turnbull has noted that the offer could provide asylum seekers ‘backdoor’ entry into Australia, and subsequently become a target or marketing opportunity for human smugglers. However, Ms Arden opposed such concerns to state that whilst New Zealand does not have the same immigration circumstances currently, “we can not ignore [the issue’s] human face.” After all, security policies should be developed to protect everyone. For is a security policy not redundant if it serves to protect some at the expense of others?

Australia’s desire to maintain strict immigration policies is understandable. However, the manner in which these are selected and enacted needs to be considered to ensure that it does not infringe upon fundamental human rights. Currently, 600 men are living in a closed detention centre with no electricity or working toilets and a decreasing food supply. They have no access to running water, and according to BBC News, have been forced to dig wells to find water and collect rain. Whilst it is necessary to pursue the U.S. resettlement deal given its large numbers, it is senseless to reject New Zealand’s offer. For whilst policy should be created with politics in mind, they should first and foremost consider the needs and rights of people.

Emily Forrester