As millions of Ukrainians pour over borders seeking safety, we’re urging Australians to bring their humanity to the polling booth at the upcoming election.
Successive Australian governments have turned their backs on national values and embraced policies that are inherently selfish and self-serving. From shrinking aid budgets and reduced refugee intakes, to processing of refugees in prison-like conditions, long gone are the days where Australian politics embraced egalitarianism, giving a fair go, and being a responsible global citizen.
In 2022, the Australian government risks polarising countries into friends or enemies. The current brand of divisive politics is neither humanitarian in spirit, nor based in values everyday Australians expect from their leaders. We have forgotten an important part of what it means to be a global leader: a willingness to assist ALL people fleeing violence and seeking shelter, regardless of where they are from.
The most visible example is Ukraine, where the Australian government committed to taking in thousands of refugees and pledged 50 million dollars in aid. Yet at the same time, thousands of Afghans are still waiting for their humanitarian visa applications to be considered, and over 100 refugees and asylum seekers remain held indefinitely in hotels in Australia, or on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, victims of Australia's cruel and repressive refugee policies. Meanwhile, the government continues to shut out people from Eastern and Western Africa fleeing violence and persecution, who don’t have the same media coverage as Ukraine.
At the upcoming election, Australians can and must vote for candidates and parties who look at refugees seeking asylum as a humanitarian issue first, and not a burden or a security threat.
Australia’s refugee policies thus far have been costly and cruel. As a direct result of punitive offshore policies designed to deter people from reaching Australia’s shores, refugees and asylum seekers have languished for almost nine years while being held in Nauru, Papua New Guinea and Australia. It took tennis player Novak Djokovic being detained in a hotel that’s held refugees for years to draw attention to this national shame.
"At the upcoming election, Australians can and must vote for candidates and parties who look at refugees seeking asylum as a humanitarian issue first, and not a burden or a security threat."
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) treated refugees in Nauru in 2017-18, and the severity of mental illness was amongst the worst MSF has ever seen globally, including in projects providing care for victims of torture.
MSF’s patients in Nauru were an extremely vulnerable group with 75 per cent reporting experience of traumatic events in their country of origin or during their migration journey. However, despite the horrific experiences they were fleeing, the alarming levels of mental health distress among refugee and asylum seeker patients were directly related to Australia’s offshore processing policy and the indefinite nature of detention. Many of these people remain in indefinite limbo today, without access to essential medical treatment for serious health conditions.
What is most unconscionable, is that New Zealand offered to re-settle these refugees in 2013: and it is only just now, nine years on, that the Australian government has finally agreed to allow refugees being held under our harmful policy regime to go to New Zealand.
But the deal is long overdue and doesn’t go far enough. It will see 450 people resettled over three years, leaving hundreds of others held offshore or in hotels in Australia without a resettlement pathway. The new deal also excludes refugees and asylum seekers on Papua New Guinea, who were also caught up in Australia’s offshore processing regime.
A recent report by Human Rights Watch described Australia as ‘alone’ globally in the severity of its onshore immigration detention system, where people are now detained for 689 days on average: 12 times longer than in the United States.
In 2017, over 800,000 Rohingya people were effectively expelled from Myanmar, fleeing targeted violence from authorities in a continuation of decades-long oppression. The Rohingya remain stateless and confined in prison-like refugee camps across the region in Bangladesh, India, Thailand and Malaysia. But no Ukraine-like refugee intake or allowance was given to them by the Australian government. Why does one standard apply for one crisis but not another?
"At this time of global crisis, it is important that Australians demonstrate their humanity and call on our politicians to reflect humanitarian principles in our foreign and domestic policies."
In fact, Australia still holds Rohingya people in Nauru, waiting to be re-settled after nine years. So, what has Australia done at a time when global refugee numbers are growing by a million each year? The Australian government decreased its refugee settlement quota from approximately 18,000 to 13,750 in 2021 and now ranks 26th in terms of overall intake. Australia’s aid budget has shrunk by $144 million in 2021-22.
At this time of global crisis, it is important that Australians demonstrate their humanity and call on our politicians to reflect humanitarian principles in our foreign and domestic policies.
MSF knows armed conflict and humanitarian catastrophes; we have been providing medical assistance to asylum seekers and refugees across the world for the last 50 years. MSF teams are dealing with refugee crises daily, not just in Ukraine and neighbouring countries, but also in Libya, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Wealthy countries like Australia can afford to do more - to spend more to end suffering in Australia’s region and further abroad, to welcome more refugees to Australia’s shores and to treat those already here with dignity and humanity.
We know Australians value a principled approach to refugees: over 50 Australians go out each year with MSF carrying out humanitarian work with the notion that where you come from and what you look like shouldn’t qualify or disqualify you for support. Tens of thousands of Australians give to us each year with that notion in mind.
In May 2022, Australians have a chance to vote for humanity and be proud of the way we treat the world’s most vulnerable people. Australians can use their vote to choose candidates who support these simple solutions:
- implement the New Zealand deal to relocate asylum seekers and refugees affected Australia’s offshore processing system in Nauru, Papua New Guinea and in Australia and prioritise urgent resettlement for all those impacted.
- immediately release the remaining people in detention into the community while they wait for resettlement placement.
- increase the general refugee intake by at least 20,000 per year and include a plan to address the plight of the Rohingya.
When accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, then MSF President James Orbinski said, “We are not sure that words can always save lives, but we know that silence can certainly kill." Australians must not be silent this May. In 2022, make your vote matter for those who need it most. Let’s be informed and do what’s right and just by making Australia’s inhumane treatment of refugees an election issue. People’s lives depend on it.
First published in the Daily Telegraph.