The Executive Director of MSF Australia has denounced the current debate in Australia about refugee intake numbers as far too little, far too late, saying Australia needs to shoulder its fair share of the global burden. Australia’s offshore detention programme and its policy of turning back boats carrying refugees is also condemned. MSF Sea has for the last 12 months taken a leading role in helping to save thousands of lives of refugees across the Mediterranean and together with MSF Australia are well placed to make these observations about Australia’s refugee policy and operations. The crucial question now: is anger by the Australian public, dismayed at their Government’s appalling track record on refugees, enough? We suggest a dramatic form of intervention (MSF’s full statement is given in section C, below.)
A. Current state of play
The divestment campaign has achieved success with at least one big player – Hesta – dumping its shares of Transfield, the company the Australian Government uses to carry out its dirty work in managing the Nauru and Manus Island ‘black sites’ refugee gulag.
The recent Senate Inquiry into abuse at the Nauru detention facility reported multiple abuses – sexual, physical, etc – as did the earlier Moss review, but still the detention centre (and its equivalent at Manus) remains operational.
Meanwhile the Australian Government which is in breach of numerous international protocols/agreements in carrying out these punitive practices – continues to ignore the reports of abuses and public opinion, including condemnation by the UN Rapporteur on Torture and Amnesty International.
B. Next move?
Let’s face it, both major Australian political parties are determined to continue with these policies as a whole, despite the condemnations and public anger, and lobbying, and protests across Australia.
So perhaps it’s time to up the ante and consider more dramatic interventions to end this madness of possibly Australia’s most reactionary government in its very short history.
Such an intervention could see, for example, major Australian and international players – lawyers, refugee organisations, Amnesty, MSF, the IRC, the UN Rapporteur, the Australian Medical Association, journalists, etc – opposed to or critical of the Government’s refugee policies (including offshore processing) coming together in a joint initiative:
- At the very least this would see a joint press statement, issued to the world’s media, to draw attention to what the Australian Government is doing and the crimes it commits or by companies acting on its behalf.
- Even better: direct intervention by sea or other means, by some or all of these players – and with the practical support of the Australian public – to close the offshore centres down forever.
And just as Nicolas Winton organised his KinderTransport to rescue hundreds of Jewish children in the lead up to World War Two, so, too, we can be inspired by the work of MSF Sea and MOAS in the Mediterranean, or the flottilla of ships and boats that sought to provide supplies to stranded Palestinians in Gaza, or the courageous work of Sea Shepherd in helping reduce illegal whaling. Each of these initiatives demonstrate, to different degrees, how direct action has a role to play whenever justice needs defending.
[Notes: 1. If a boat is in danger of sinking, anyone has a legal duty to rescue its occupants (e.g. in the way that MOAS & MSF do in the Mediterranean). 2. The Australian Government is likely to send any rescued refugees to the offshore processing centres at Nauru or Manus Island. 3. Anyone helping refugees to enter Australian territory is liable to be charged with People Smuggling (up to 10 years prison?). 4. Any ships/boats entering PNG or Nauru territorial waters to rescue imprisoned refugees would be seen as threat and those taking part would be subject to arrest. 5. In summary, high-profile individuals/organisation are more likely to avoid prosecution should they attempt to make a ‘sea based statement’ re the crime of Australia’s gulag. 6. In any case, expert legal advice is recommended.]
C. Statement by MSF Australia
The Australian government’s announcement yesterday that it would take more Syrian refugees as part of its existing humanitarian program is woefully inadequate, said the international medical-humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) today.
“We urge the government to recognise the huge scale of the challenge and act accordingly. Even the calls for 10,000 or 20,000 additional humanitarian refugees would represent a small, if nonetheless welcome impact on the crisis,” said MSF Australia Executive Director. Paul McPhun.
While Germany is expecting over 800,000 refugees in 2015 and has placed no upper limit on their humanitarian intake, Australia isn’t even prepared to increase its current humanitarian intake that is set at 13,750.
The world is currently witnessing the largest movement of people since WWII, with 60 million people displaced, of which at least 20 million are refugees, according to the UNHCR.
With a crisis of this magnitude, countries like Australia are in a strong position to dramatically increase their humanitarian programs to meet this unprecedented need to resettle more refugees.
“Given the numbers of refugees worldwide – not just Syrians – who cannot find long term safety and security, any increase will have to be very large to come close to shouldering a fair share of the global burden,” McPhun said.
“We are sickened when rescuing people crammed into boats at sea to find them full of those who have died of asphyxiation. It has taken one tragic image of a life lost in Greece to finally humanise a reality the Government have been choosing to ignore for years now in the debate in Australia,” said Mr McPhun.
Of the 2.4 million people who have fled Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey continue to host the majority. Syrians now make up more than a quarter of the population of Lebanon and Jordan and entry of new arrivals is already restricted as a result. Turkey, which is hosting the largest number of refugees worldwide, recently said it is at its limit and cannot cope with any additional refugees.
Médecins Sans Frontières is involved in all significant conflict states worldwide where people are fleeing from and thus see first-hand the terror and dangers that lead people to risk their lives in the pursuit of safety. “We have been dealing with this tragedy on the front line inside Syria, in refugee camps, in search and rescue operations and in reception centres. Our teams are reaching breaking point from piecing children together in our operating theatres after aerial bombings of civilian neighbourhoods in Syria and Yemen,” said Paul McPhun.
Médecins Sans Frontières is involved in responding to the global refugee crisis, from all the states bordering Syria to the migration routes via the Mediterranean, the Balkans and throughout South East Asia.
“This is not a Middle Eastern or European problem but a global responsibility and Australia should have a significant role to play,” Mr McPhun said. “As with the Ebola crisis last year, we see Australia as a well resourced country capable of being a key responder however it is putting more priority on its own border protection than on the lives of millions of acutely vulnerable people, forced from their homes and seeking protection.”
This is not just a problem of Syrian refugees, with 20 million refugees deemed highly vulnerable by UNHCR and deserving protection – Australia can think beyond reducing people’s lives to a discussion of just Syrians and increases to quotas in the thousands, Australia should and could do more.
Mr McPhun added: “Beyond Australia’s humanitarian immigration intake, much more must be done, globally, to reduce the barriers and obstacles people face when forced to flee their homes. Australia’s first step would be to end its punitive offshore detention and turn-back policies and instead build safe alternatives for those seeking asylum in Australia”.