The most dangerous mistruth in current Australian politics is that in order for lives to be saved at sea, other people — accused of no crime — must be indefinitely and arbitrarily punished offshore.
Asserted with increasing confidence as fact, this unproven link is used to justify Australia’s brutal regime of offshore detention in Nauru and on Manus Island as a necessary condition for a policy that, however harsh, ultimately serves a greater good.
The need to be seen to be “tough on borders” has outweighed all other considerations, pushing successive governments towards increasingly extreme positions, grotesque cruelties and risible rhetorical contortions in insisting their actions are reasonable, legal or morally defensible.
Since its inception, the policy has been roundly and repeatedly criticized — but mostly outside Canberra. Failure, scandal, abuse and death have occurred under the watch of both main parties.
In recent weeks, the world has watched aghast as the Papua New Guinea arm of the policy on Manus Island lurched toward its bitter end, driven along by swinging metal bars and the enforced thirst of hundreds of men.
Reduced to its basest element, Australian government policy is to begrudgingly treat those who legally sought its asylum — by one mode of transport, by boat — with axiomatic cruelty, in order to discourage others from paying people smugglers and hopping into leaky boats across Southeast Asia.
This policy saves lives, they say, because it deters others.
However, it is not this policy that is stopping the boats from reaching Australian shores. Australia has spent billions of dollars putting an armada to sea in the waters to the country’s north
Asylum boats continue to ply the waters of the region and attempt to reach Australia. They do so in much smaller numbers now because they are intercepted, boarded and their passengers and crew forcibly turned around. Protection assessments are conducted at sea — a policy considered illegal under international law by almost every expert opinion, including that of the UN.
If Nauru and Manus were emptied tomorrow, Australia’s “ring of steel” — Australian Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton’s phrase — would continue to stop boats.
When Australia abdicated responsibility for its detention center on Manus Island, withholding food, water and electricity, hundreds of men stayed in the center they loathed. They felt — and had evidence to back their claims — that they would be unsafe on alternative sites in the main town of Lorengau.
The Guardian reported from the detention center on what Australia’s policy had become reduced to: the poisoning of wells and the gouging of water tanks, police destroying food supplies and using metal batons against refugees whom Australia is legally required to protect.
Among the refugees holding out there — drinking dirty water and rationing their dwindling food — there was defiance amid the decay, and a solidarity born of new agency.
After four-and-a-half years of having to line up for every meal, of having to fill out a form to request medical treatment that might never come, of being corralled and quarantined behind high steel fences and sequestered into smaller and smaller cells, the men on Manus were briefly back in charge of their lives.
Each night, the refugees took great ceremony in locking the main gate to the detention center. They were guards of their own prison, but it was they who were in control.
Throughout the standoff, practical solutions were proposed. Australia’s top medical professionals offered to arrange and conduct medical assessments at their own cost if the Australian government could help with the refugees’ visas.
New Zealand offered, again, to resettle 150 people, only to be rebuffed once again. When that was refused, New Zealand offered cash to improve conditions on Manus Island. That too was refused.
The Australian government says the New Zealand offer dilutes the “stop the boats” deterrent, at the same time as continuing to prosecute its plan to send even greater numbers of refugees to the US. The same rules seemingly do not apply. The argument that refugees who resettle in New Zealand could not, then, be prevented from coming to Australia is hopelessly flawed: There are already New Zealand citizens Australia prevents from traveling to Australia.
Last week the joint Papua New Guinea police and immigration operation changed its code name from “Helpim Friends” to “Klinim Base” and officers moved in, clearing the site in less than two days.
Journalist Behrouz Boochani, a regular contributor to the Guardian, was hunted, arrested and beaten. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) was denied access to the men. After five days of asking politely, the humanitarian medical aid group went public.
MSF rarely goes public with complaints or criticisms, preferring to maintain relationships with host countries and continue their work with patients, but felt it was warranted in this instance.
Australia said little. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Dutton parroted the line that the men had accommodation to go to and were simply trying to pressure the Australian government.
Speaking through the safe mediums of Twitter and Ray Hadley’s radio show, Dutton furiously declared it was everyone else who was wrong.
Dutton said he knew the truth of the lies spread by detainees, advocates, the UN, Amnesty International, MSF, the Australian Council for International Development, the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Watch, the New Zealand government, Papua New Guinea’s supreme court, Papua New Guinea Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, multiple member nations of the UN, Australian voters, even the front page of News Corp Australia’s Daily Telegraph.
Whether a symptom of the post-truth era or simply stubbornness, the government dismissed eyewitness accounts and even pictures and footage that clearly showed only one of the three alternative accommodation sites was fit for habitation.
There has always been a disconnect between the frustrated self-defense of the Australian government and the accounts of refugees, human rights groups, independent observers and foreign governments, but it has never been more stark than during the past month.
With the scant faith in the US deal waning still further among refugees, the government’s ideal resolution is that the men give up, settle in at East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre where the conditions are good or in one of the two unfinished places if they were unlucky enough to end up there, and stop complaining.
Alternatively, the hope goes, the men could be resettled away from Australia or be repatriated, and Australia and Papua New Guinea could declare the center closed.
The government throws money at its problem, but this issue requires fewer dollars and more imagination. Thousands more will be spent to coerce people to return to the known dangers of their homeland; about A$250 millon (US$190 million) has been earmarked for Manus Island alone this year.
An alternative to Australia’s current regime would be that people seeking safety by dangerous boat journey be intercepted — even rescued — and taken to a place of safety. These people can be processed and resettled to third countries where possible. This new regime would need commitments of money, of expertise and political capital. It would, like any system, be imperfect and a small minority would seek to exploit it.
The guiding principle must be: Do Australia’s actions increase the amount of protection in the world for those who need it? Australia’s current arrangement categorically fails this fundamental question.
Stopping boats at sea does not necessarily mandate that those stopped must then be punished, month after month, year after year, in indefinite and arbitrary detention. The two are not linked.
That is why the current suffering on Manus is especially confronting: It is unnecessary. There has been no war, no natural disaster. It is a catastrophe of conscious and political creation.
Ben Doherty and Helen Davidson cover immigration and asylum for the Guardian Australia.
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