Court throws Manus overboard, so what’s next?

As someone who was briefly detained after the botched execution of a Chaser prank, I’m a fan of the rule that people shouldn’t be locked up without a good reason. This notion, which goes back to the Roman principle of habeas corpus, is the crux of the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court’s recent decision overturning the detention of asylum-seekers on Manus Island.

Reading section 42 of the PNG constitution, I wonder why we ever thought it would permit the detention of people who have committed no crime. It prevents detention except under specific circumstances – although it’s unclear whether that covers pranks involving public nudity.

Shouldn’t arbitrary detention bother Australians, too? We often throw up our hands when an Aussie’s locked up overseas even after being convicted, but we’re fine with locking up non-Australians who’ve dared to seek asylum. Which is not only no crime, but protected by a treaty to which we’re a signatory.

We’ve blithely embraced Guantanamo logic, where it doesn’t matter what your government does as long as it happens on a remote island. Whereas I suspect that if our government set up its razor wire in the middle of Martin Place, the public would tear it down in a day.

The Pacific Solution, Malaysia Solution, PNG, Cambodia – over the past decade, we’ve had almost as many Solutions as prime ministers. Even Nauru’s now mostly an “open centre”, and when your most loyal client state has moral qualms, you’re on perilous ground.

Like the ground in Nauru, in fact. Perhaps the Nauruans remembered that they might need resettlement themselves someday?

Our government responded with the usual tough talk. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton promised that the 900 men won’t be settled in Australia, although it’s hard to see where else we can send them. Non-convict hulks, perhaps?

Or maybe we’ll lease a newly made Chinese island? It’d surely be cheaper than paying Cambodia $55 million to resettle a mere two people.

The news of Manus’ closure has upset the current gentlemen’s agreement not to talk about boats in the campaign. Bill Shorten doesn’t want to – the issue plays badly for Labor, even though it devised the PNG policy. Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t want to either, as part of his ongoing effort not to sound like Tony Abbott.

But the PNG Supreme Court wanted to talk about boats. And we all must, yet again. We need a solution that doesn’t simply park desperate people in incubators for mental illness.

Some say “let them stay”, which is sweet, but ultimately as simplistic a three-word mantra as “stop the boats”. It seems indisputable that offering a legal advantage to those who reach our shores creates more danger for vulnerable people.

The independent Australian Border Deaths Database puts the toll under Labor at over 1100 – which is only the cases we know about. (Hundreds also died under the Coalition.) We cannot allow those numbers to climb further.

This problem is too big for any domestic politician to solve, because it reflects a flaw in the international system. Despite being designed for safety, the rules now encourage this deadly nautical gamble, because obligations are triggered only when entering a signatory territory.

This approach made sense for post-WWII mass displacements, which predominantly involved land borders. But in today’s Europe, as here, maritime borders are proving deadly. We must start again.

It needs to be easier to reach safety. The international community should assist asylum-seekers to escape, whether via maritime rescues, organising flights or even negotiating with regimes to allow people to leave.

If the international community facilitates a departure, it can choose the processing site. The destinations may predominantly be developing countries, but asylum seekers could live in safe community housing while waiting for permanent resettlement. The costs would largely borne by wealthier nations, but the foreign assets of repressive regimes could also be seized to help their victims.

Anyone landing in Australia would be transferred to an international centre, and the UNHCR would choose the ultimate country of resettlement without reference to the entry point. Seeking asylum should not short-circuit regular migration processes.

But Australia should take more refugees who have entered the system at other points. We accommodate 1 per cent of the UNHCR pool, but that’s a tiny proportion of refugees worldwide – and it’s not like we don’t have room.

Besides, immigration has enriched Australia in countless ways, and many of our greatest citizens arrived as refugees.

We must not only close down the much-discussed “business models” of people-smugglers, but take Australia out of the business of offshore prison camps for those we’ve promised to protect.

I don’t have all the answers, but surely Australia will need to contribute a lot of money to solve the problem, as we already do, provide a lot of spaces, and conduct diplomacy on this issue more successfully than we have lately.

Domestically, we need constructive discussions that acknowledge asylum-seekers as a collective responsibility. And we need to rediscover the empathy that originally led us to sign up to the system. After all, who among us would not try to leave a place where our lives were threatened?

The last thing we need is more sloganeering in this campaign. Instead, we must try to fuse the humane with the pragmatic. Anything less is unworthy of a nation that should serve as a beacon of compassion. And we can start by finding a safe home for the people on Manus.

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald

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