Carolina Gottardo and Nishadh Rego are Director and Policy and Advocacy Coordinator respectively for Jesuit Refugee Service Australia. This article originally featured in Eureka Street, 12 December 2019.
It is Wednesday 4 December 2019. Close to a hundred Sydney-siders gather at the Sydney Catholic Archdiocese to reflect on Australia’s offshore detention regime. Among us are Catholics, non-Catholics, priests, parishioners, CEOs, lawyers, doctors, and students.
Behrouz Boochani, Bishop Vincent Long, Fr Peter Smith and I (Carolina) will speak at today’s forum. The latter three of us have returned from a solidarity and fact-finding visit to Port Moresby, where we met with the Catholic church, UN officials, civil society groups, and refugees and asylum seekers themselves.
We begin with an acknowledgement of country; an acknowledgement of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. ‘It was land that was stolen; there is no treaty; it was never ceded. We wait with the rest of Australia for treaty to be white relationship with the First Nations people.’
We transition to a second announcement. The Medevac bill has been repealed in the Australian Senate. It less an acknowledgement, and more a reckoning with the reality that sick men and women seeking Australia’s protection will now find it harder to obtain the medical treatment they desperately need.
In a matter of minutes, we canvas a long history of violence towards First Nations people and highlight the continuation of this legacy in our treatment of refugees and people seeking asylum. In the words of Fr Brian McCoy SJ, Provincial of the Australian Jesuits, it is the ‘bookends of rejection’ writ large.
Outside, a thick, toxic, Martian-red haze kisses the windows. An ode to the future perhaps. Most people are already aware of the Medevac repeal decision in the Senate. The room is heavy with silence.
Boochani joins the conversation from New Zealand. He is predictably and understandably despondent. ‘For years I and others have been working to make people aware of what is happening in Manus Island and Nauru. But the government still has the power to do this (repeal Medevac). That is why I feel really saddened,’ he says.
“And so we — grassroots and leadership alike — pick ourselves up for the post-Medevac struggle, knowing that the men and women in PNG and Nauru continue to have no choice, no respite, no cause for joy.”
A cursory examination of the government’s main justifications for Medevac’s repeal highlights serious gaps in fact and logic. Medevac did not lead to a resumption in the people-smuggling trade. The government’s argument that the bill’s passage in February would generate an armada of new boats has not been borne out by facts. No new boats arrived. Nonetheless, in anticipation, the government rushed to re-open Christmas Island at the cost of $185 million and today it houses nobody but the family from Biloela.
The argument that Medevac renders the government powerless to prevent ‘dangerous individuals’ from coming to Australia is deeply problematic. Under the Medevac provisions, the Minister always retained the power to refuse a transfer if he reasonably believes that the person would expose the Australian community to serious risk of criminal conduct. The Minister used this power to prevent transfers sought under Medevac.
Meanwhile close to 200 people were able to obtain access to the medical care they required through the Medevac law. As Alex Reilly puts it, the government’s repeal of Medevac will do little more than delay the medical transfers of those remaining offshore and in urgent need of treatment.
But Medevac cannot be thought of as a panacea. The greater struggle is to find safe and humane solutions for all of the approximately 464 people left in PNG and in Nauru, regardless of their immigration or legal status. All have had their most fundamental human rights breached time and time again. After seven years of such violations, status should not determine their future prospects for safety. At present it still does.
The majority have been recognised as refugees and will leave the islands in the coming months. Some are on a pathway to resettlement in the US. Others will be privately sponsored to rebuild their lives in Canada. Others did not engage in the refugee status determination process (RSD), which commenced in 2014, or have had their asylum claims refused.
The men in the direst circumstances are those who remained detained in Bomana Immigration Centre in Port Moresby. They have been subjected to physical and psychological torture since August 2019. Most have lost between 12 and 15kg since their incarceration. They eat the equivalent of one small meal per day, have no contact with family members or visitors, have no access to legal advice, and are chronically suicidal.
A small number of men have married and started families with local women. These families live in abject destitution, unable even to afford food or hygiene products. PNG’s predominantly patrilineal land ownership system means that only men inherit land. Foreign men — refugees, people seeking asylum, and migrants — do not qualify for such inheritances. Some of these men have been approved for medical transfers or resettlement but cannot take their wives or children with them. They must make the cruel choices between medical treatment or resettlement and family separation.
For those who haven’t engaged in the RSD process, are refused asylum, or in Bomana, there appear to be no readily available third country settlement options. As it stands, they will be in Port Moresby until they sign papers affirming a willingness to ‘voluntarily’ return to their countries of origin. If the status quo remains, more people will die.
The mood in the room is sombre, but far from resigned. There is a sense of catharsis in the question and answer segment, but attendees want change, and seem willing to have a crack at demanding it.
The New Zealand offer is an obvious solution for 150 refugees who are not eligible for resettlement in the US. The Catholic Church also has an important role in creating humanitarian corridors, brokering agreements with third countries, and providing practical support on the ground in the interim. The UN can play a role in enabling third country resettlement/humanitarian pathways via quiet diplomacy, and in ensuring that the red line of refoulement is not crossed.
Bishop Long is the Chairman of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) Commission for Social Justice — Mission and Service. He is the first Australian Catholic Bishop to visit either PNG or Nauru since the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island were reopened in 2012-2013. On 6 December, the ACBC issued an official statement calling for the government ‘to ensure timely and durable resettlement options [for all] in Australia and other secure countries’.
At the forum itself, Bishop Long laments the repeal of Medevac. But, he says, ‘I am also so comforted by so many of you here and many others who are concerned about the way Australia treats asylum seekers and refugees. I firmly believe that it is not the political elites, but the grassroots people who make the difference and who can move hearts and minds.’
And so we — grassroots and leadership alike — pick ourselves up for the post-Medevac struggle, knowing that the men and women in PNG and Nauru continue to have no choice, no respite, no cause for joy, even as Christmas approaches.
Carolina Gottardo and Nishadh Rego are Director and Policy and Advocacy Coordinator respectively for Jesuit Refugee Service Australia.
Featured image: Catholics and other friends and allies stand with refugees at the Catholic Forum.