Malcolm Turnbull confronts a classic “wicked problem” in how to deal with the nearly 1600 asylum seekers who are stuck in terrible conditions on Nauru and Manus Island.
A “wicked problem” is one that is “highly resistant to resolution”. In this case, Turnbull has – if he chooses to take it up – the policy challenge of finding a humane outcome for the detainees while maintaining a convincing “tough on borders” stand vis-a-vis the people smugglers.
This would also involve a political challenge. Hardline conservatives in his party, still appalled by the leadership coup, will use the asylum-seeker issue as one marker by which to judge Turnbull. From the other perspective, so will some moderate Liberals in the party and small-l liberals in voterland.
The present unacceptable state of affairs has most recently been highlighted by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau. He announced he was postponing his September 27-October 9 visit to Australia “due to the lack of full co-operation from the government regarding protection concerns and access to detention centres”.
Crépeau said the new Border Force Act, which threatens detention centre staff who disclose protected information with two years in jail, “would have an impact on my visit as it serves to discourage people from fully disclosing information relevant to my mandate”.
He had asked the government for a written guarantee that no-one he met would be at risk of “any intimidation or sanctions” under that act. The government was not prepared to give the guarantee required by his official terms of reference.
Crépeau said that since March he had repeatedly requested that the Australian government facilitate his access to its offshore processing centres, without success.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton responded that the government had “accommodated to the fullest extent possible the requests of the office of the Special Rapporteur”. Access to centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru “is the responsibility of these sovereign nations and needs to be addressed with their governments”, Dutton added.
The most recent numbers (late August) showed 936 males detained on Manus and 653 detainees in Nauru (446 men, 114 women and 93 children). Processing has been painfully slow.
Under the Abbott government it was thought acceptable to let these people languish, apparently indefinitely.
Hopefully Turnbull will take a different view. He hinted at this last week when asked by Sky’s David Speers about the people “stuck” offshore. “I have the same concerns about the situation of people on Manus and Nauru as you do, and as I would think almost all, all, Australians do,” he said.
When some saw this as a potential softening of policy, however, he quickly reiterated that these people would never come to Australia.
Turnbull should address several steps if he is going to deal with the plight of the people on Nauru and Manus.
First, the government should do whatever is required to give the Special Rapporteur proper access to people and places. Ensuring protection for those who speak with the Rapporteur and access to centres is the easiest part of dealing with the wicked problem.
Second, there should be more Australian oversight in the centres. Claims that the sovereignty of PNG and Nauru would be compromised do not hold water – Australia is paying the bills.
Third, the government should find a way of having the people in the detention centres processed more quickly. The processing is done by the Nauru and PNG authorities, so the Australian government says “ask them” in response to questions about delays – a convenient but not convincing answer.
Fourth, those determined to be refugees need to be resettled satisfactorily, bearing in mind that the government won’t allow them to come to Australia.
From the reporting we have seen – most recently at the weekend from The Age’s Michael Gordon, who visited Manus – the conditions of the small number whose refugee claims have been upheld and who are out of the detention centres are appalling.
The government promised large amounts of funding for Cambodia to take people. Only a handful of refugees went.
Other third-country destinations are needed. But what hope of finding them, when the world is awash with great human tides of asylum seekers? Are any countries interested in “people swap” deals?
Fifth, any attempt by people smugglers to take advantage of a more humane policy towards the Manus and Nauru people by trying to restart the trade would need to be stared down. Both sides of politics now endorse turnbacks and there is no reason to think this would not continue to be effective as a deterrent.
Sixth, the Border Force Act should be amended, to allow those working in detention centres proper rights to provide information publicly in appropriate circumstances. The Australian Medical Association has been campaigning against the legislation and its voice should be heeded – it has a professional not a commercial interest in the issue.
In his last days as prime minister, Tony Abbott had Australia make a generous gesture to 12,000 refugees from the Syrian conflict. That actually was easier than solving the problem of the people stranded in PNG and Nauru. But the fate of those close at hand and under our watch is equally important and increasingly urgent.