The fracas between the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) and the government over whether Australia agreed to settle a handful of the Manus Island/Nauru boat people with family here goes to questions of fact and humanity.
UNHCR claims it consented to facilitate the Australia-US resettlement deal, reached late last year, “on the clear understanding that vulnerable refugees with close family ties in Australia would ultimately be allowed to settle there”.
The government says its position has always been – as it has consistently said publicly – that none of those on Manus Island and Nauru would ever be allowed to come here.
It should be possible to get to the bottom of what was said in the multiple meetings the UNHCR had with the government. Presumably each side, and certainly the Australian bureaucrats, would have taken notes. These should be produced. Or perhaps information will be dragged out eventually in that very useful inquisitorial forum, Senate estimates.
Asked whether Immigration Minister Peter Dutton had given an assurance, Volker Turk, UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, told the ABC on Monday: “He didn’t give us assurances because we didn’t present cases yet. But he did agree that we would be able to present such cases.”
One can imagine how, anxious to get UNHCR involvement, Dutton and officials might have let the impression be left that cases would be considered – when they had no intention of looking favourably at any of them.
Maybe this is too Machiavellian – but the record should clarify. It is important for the credibility of both the UNHCR, which made the claim in a very tough statement, and of the government that what happened be made clear.
Then there is the substantive question. We are talking about very few people – some 36 identified so far with a humanitarian claim and links to Australia, according to the UNHCR.
Whether the UNHCR or the government is right about the tenor of their conversations, surely in the cases of these people, it is not asking too much to expect Australia to take them in, regardless of the policy.
Dutton and colleagues default to the standard line, conjuring up the prospects of a fresh armada if any exceptions are ever made.
When the US deal was announced there was much tough talk from the government about strengthening the iron cordon of vessels patrolling around Australia in case there was a try-on from the people smugglers.
Does anyone seriously think that cordon isn’t up to the task of discouraging any fresh attempt if we let in three-dozen needy people with relatives here?
Remember that John Howard’s Pacific solution, which stopped the boats, saw some 705 of the 1,637 detained in Manus Island and Nauru between 2001 and 2008 resettled in Australia.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the government exaggerates the threat for political purposes.
In case this be seen as just being “soft” on border protection, let me say that I believe the policy of turning back boats has been justified. Offshore processing had its place in that policy, but it is a step far too far to say now that we couldn’t keep the border secure if a few special cases were allowed to come to Australia.
One wonders if Dutton, Malcolm Turnbull or other ministers are ever troubled in their consciences, as they enjoy their own families, about what they are doing to the lives of children on Nauru or young men on Manus Island.
It’s as if the government buys its own propaganda, which subtly or not-so-subtly demonises these people – a majority of whom are found to be refugees – essentially suggesting they are criminals, as in Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s comments on Tuesday.
“If people seek to arrive illegally, if they pay criminal smuggling networks, they will not be resettled in Australia,” she said. Bishop, of all people, knows that the story of seeking asylum is more complicated and involves the question of rights, with “unauthorised” arrivals being the appropriate term.
The row with the UNHCR sits uncomfortably with Australia’s campaign to win membership of the UN Human Rights Council, for which the vote is in October. The council’s remit is “the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe”. But Bishop, who has been advocating for Australia’s candidature as she travels the world, on Tuesday was confident of success.
Leaving aside the contretemps with the UNHCR, some eight months after the announcement of the US deal none of the people from Manus Island or Nauru has moved to America.
We know that Donald Trump hates the Obama-era deal – under which the Americans agreed to take up to 1,250 refugees – though he has said he will honour it.
We know that the Americans are doing their own “extreme vetting” of the refugees.
We know that the US has already filled its refugee quota for the year ending September, so these people are pushed into the following quota, which starts October.
What we don’t know is how hard the Turnbull government is working to persuade the US administration to meet the agreement as soon as possible.
Turnbull makes much of he and Trump both being businessmen. Well, this can be thought of as a contract, and it is time the contract’s terms were met.
We have a special relationship with the US and that should be called upon. The people should be gone by Christmas, at the latest.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra