13 June 2015
Abbott's green light to people smugglers
By refusing to deny that his government paid people smugglers to take intercepted asylum seekers back to Indonesia, Tony Abbott has given a green light to the deadly trade he rightly despises.
The explanation for neither confirming nor denying this week's reports in Fairfax Media is that he doesn't want to give information "to our enemies" by commenting on operational matters.
But this answer gives those very enemies reason to believe they might profit, courtesy of the Abbott government, if their enterprises are intercepted on the high seas.
Rather than close down the people smugglers' business model, it suggests another source of profit.
That is the practical consequence, but just as disturbing are the legal, moral and diplomatic questions raised by implicit confirmation that the government has taken its end-justifies-the-means border protection policy to an, until now, unimagined extreme.
The legal question is simple enough: if the government has paid crew employed by people smugglers to take asylum seekers to somewhere they do not want to go, does this not amount to trafficking? If not, why not?
The moral question is equally clear: if it is wrong for desperate people to pay people smugglers to take them to safety, how can it be right to pay those working for these smugglers to take the very same people back to an uncertain limbo?
The diplomatic question should be answered soon enough. Having made its objections to turn-backs abundantly clear on multiple levels and on multiple occasions, how will Indonesia react? Not well, I suspect.
The Prime Minister's declaration that his government has stopped the boats "by hook or by crook" is an unwitting reminder of the dark side of this signature policy.
The moral justification is that he has stopped the deaths at sea, been able to close mainland detention centres and save taxpayers' money. All solid outcomes. But at what human cost?
One thousand men remain in limbo on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island in conditions that those fortunate enough to witness say are in breach of international treaties. Many carry the scars of the violence that ended the life of Reza Barati.
Around the same number, including around 100 children, remain in detention in tented accommodation on Nauru, where a dozen security guards have been sacked over allegations of sexual assault and child abuse.
Then there are the mothers of babies in mainland detention centres, terrified at the prospect of being returned to the conditions they experienced on Nauru.
The unrepudiated assertion, that the government has paid crew to return asylum seekers, highlights the lack of transparency and accountability that pervades every dimension of this area of policy.
At a time when countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are recognising the need for a regional agreement to deal with the problem of people movements, as opposed to the regional deterrence framework championed by Australia, it also reveals Australia to be out of step and alone.