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Turn back from cruelty and indifference: Melissa Parke’s speech to Parliament

The federal Labor MP for Fremantle, Melissa Parke, who has announced that she will not re-contest the next election, addressed the House of Representatives in the grievance debate yesterday. Parke, a former human rights lawyer, has been an outspoken critic of the government’s and her own party’s policies on the treatment of asylum seekers.

In the speech, the full text of which is posted below, she said the current policy of offshore detention, with refusal to resettle any people who arrive by boat in Australia, makes a “mockery” of Australia’s commitments to the UN refugee convention; our commitment to the international rule of law; and our claim to be a good international citizen and respecter of human rights, and therefore entitled to a seat at the UN Human Rights Council.

[divide style=”dots” width=”medium”]

Melissa Parke’s speech to the House of Representatives, February 29 2016

I was preselected to run for Labor in the federal seat of Fremantle while I was still working for the United Nations overseas. One of the main motivations for coming back to Australia to stand for parliament was to help to improve asylum seekers policy that had for so long been misused by the government of Prime Minister John Howard for cynical political purposes.

On my first day back to Australia on 20 June 2007, I gave a speech in the Fremantle Town Hall to mark World Refugee Day. I had worked a lot with refugees during my time with the UN, especially in Kosovo and Gaza. I had seen Kosovars streaming back from neighbouring countries to their burnt-out homes in Kosovo to live in tents in the middle of the harshest winter on record. I worked with Palestinian refugees in the Middle East who had been forced from their homes in 1948 and 1967 and who were living in appallingly dire conditions for decades in the hope that they would one day return to their homes.

Most refugees are currently living in neighbouring countries. Why? For some it is because they do not have the resources to go any further. But, mostly, it is because they want to go home as soon as circumstances will allow. Far from the cynical reasoning of many in the West that asylum seekers are people who are really just seeking a better life, my own UN experiences told me that people do not leave or stay away from their homes where they were born and grew up, where they have their own culture, food and language, where their loved ones are, without very good reason. It is only when circumstances are so hopeless in their home country, or in the place they have fled to, that people will look further afield for safety.

The former President of Latvia, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga said,

“No one leaves their home willingly or gladly. When people leave en masse the place of their birth, the place where they live it means there is something very deeply wrong with the circumstances in that country and we should never take lightly these flights of refugees fleeing across borders. They are a sign, they are a symptom, they are proof that something is very wrong somewhere on the international scene. When the moment comes to leave your home, it is a painful moment”.

 It can be a costly choice. Three weeks and three days after my family left the shores of Latvia, my little sister died. We buried her by the roadside, we were never able to return or put a flower on her grave.

And I like to think that I stand here today as a survivor who speaks for all those who died by the roadside, some buried by their families and others not and for all those millions across the world today who do not have a voice who cannot be heard but they are also human beings, they also suffer, they also have their hopes, their dreams and their aspirations. Most of all they dream of a normal life.”

It seems that in the last decade and a half, we as a nation have forgotten the lessons of World War II—the direct connection with suffering that led Australia to be the sixth signatory to The Refugee Convention that brought it into force.

Most of the world’s 60 million refugees are being hosted in poor neighbouring countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and increasingly in Europe. Lebanon, a small country of four million people, is hosting more than two million Syrian refugees—half of its population again. It would be the equivalent of 12 million people turning up on Australia’s doorstep. Against such numbers, our commitment of some 13,000 humanitarian places is not nearly as generous as our political leaders would have the community believe. Of the additional 12,000 Syrian refugees that Australia is supposed to be taking, only 26 have arrived in Australia so far. This is pitiful.

Even worse is the deliberate policy of cruelty that defines our offshore detention system, together with the mantra that no-one who arrives by boat will ever be resettled in Australia. What a mockery this makes of our commitments to the UN refugee convention, which is very clear in saying that asylum seekers must not be punished for the manner of their arrival. What a mockery it makes of our commitment to the international rule of law, which we are fond of quoting at the Chinese when it comes to their island-building activities in the South China Sea. What a mockery it makes of our claim to be a good international citizen and respecter of human rights and therefore entitled to a seat at the UN Human Rights Council.

It is telling that in his first speech in the role the current UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, made a specific reference to Australia as follows:

“Australia’s policy of off-shore processing for asylum seekers arriving by sea, and its interception and turning back of vessels, is leading to a chain of human rights violations, including arbitrary detention and possible torture following return to home countries. It could also lead to the resettlement of migrants in countries that are not adequately equipped. …

 … Human rights are not reserved for citizens only, or for people with visas. They are the inalienable rights of every individual, regardless of his or her location and migration status.”

 In an article titled ‘Eroding human rights in Australian foreign policy, one asylum seeker at a time’, Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director, Phil Robertson, recently wrote:

“Australia is rarely pushing for rights-respecting solutions these days – and more than that, is too often part of the problem. Politicians trapped in the refugee policy dialogue in Canberra frequently fail to recognise that Australia’s boat push-back policies, and offshoring asylum seekers into abusive conditions of detention in Nauru and on Manus Island, are seen as a green-light by Asian governments to do the same: …

 … By soliciting governments to help stop boats, Australia also ends up looking the other way on other rights abuses. By cooperating with Australia to take back boats of their nationals, both Sri Lanka and Vietnam know they could count on Australia not to publicly raise concerns about the rights abuses that drove those people into the boats in the first place. …

 Meanwhile, Cambodia is laughing all the way to the bank with at least $55m of Australia’s taxpayer dollars for taking just five refugees so far from Nauru. All this for a deal that the UN high commissioner for refugees termed “a worrying departure from international norms” of refugee protection.”

 In the time I have been in parliament Australia’s position has become demonstrably worse and far more hypocritical. Whereas Prime Minister Howard made little attempt to hide the cruel nature of his policies and, rather, sought to demonise asylum seekers as queue jumpers, people who would throw their own children overboard and potential terrorists, the present generation of politicians on both sides use the cloak of humanitarian language to justify the policies, with the appalling exceptions of the former immigration minister, who, among other things, wrongfully accused Save the Children staff on Nauru of coaching asylum seekers to fabricate abuse stories, and the present minister, who, without foundation, recently suggested that refugees on Nauru may self-harm or harm their children in order to get to Australia.

But, for the most part, they claim, we are saving people from drowning at sea and we are stopping the evil people smugglers. Isn’t it extraordinary that the government denounces evil people smugglers while at the same time paying them to take people in the other direction? This is a crime under both domestic and international law.

In relation to saving people from drowning at sea, it is firstly nonsense to say that you are going to punish one group of people who have already arrived by boat in order to deter another potential group of people from getting on a boat. Would it not be far more constructive to create the conditions in origin and transit countries that would mean people do not need to get on boats in the first place? This is what a genuine regional protection framework is about.

Secondly, how do you deter people who have no other option? Those who come to Australia by boat could not get here in any authorised way. If you are Afghani or Rohingya you stand almost no chance of being granted a visa by Australia if you apply for one or of being resettled to Australia through UNHCR, even if you are proved to be a refugee. You could wait in the so-called queue for 100 years and still not be allowed to come.

Many of these people, knowing the risks of boat travel, will still take this chance of getting to Australia by the only means open to them, because they are escaping the unsafe conditions at home and the unsafe conditions in transit countries, where they have no right to work and no access to health or education services and where they could be sent home any time.

Thirdly, is there no limit to the cruelty to be imposed on people in the name of deterrence? It seems that not even proven murder, suicide and widespread raping and attacking of asylum seekers and refugees is sufficient to cause a change in policy or to implement something as basic and essential to good governance as independent oversight. In his new book, The Shock of RecognitionBarry Jones describes the situation of refugees detained without evidence or right of appeal, being ‘nameless, faceless and without an identity’, as ‘straight from the world of Kafka’. The government denies any responsibility for what happens in PNG and on Nauru while simultaneously building the detention centres, hiring and paying the detention centre operators and managing everything that goes on in those places.

Last year, the government made amendments to the Migration Act that were, unfortunately, supported by the Labor opposition, in which it retrospectively absolved itself of responsibility for everything that has happened on Manus and Nauru since August 2012.

The High Court recently upheld that law as constitutional. Why? It is not because the government is really behaving in a decent manner despite all evidence to the contrary; it is because there are virtually no human rights protections in the Australian Constitution and the parliament has the power to make laws on any matter, no matter how draconian. This is why many people have been calling for a bill of rights or a human rights act, Australia being the only Western democracy without one. Of course, regardless of the domestic legal position, under international law Australia cannot contract out its legal responsibilities and remains responsible for the plight of people it sends to Manus and Nauru.

I would like to conclude with some words from my famous constituent Tim Winton’s extraordinary Palm Sunday speech last year:

“… we live now as hostages to our lowest fears.”

To those who say this matter is resolved, I say no … A settlement built on suffering will never be settled. An economy built on cruelty is a swindle. A sense of comfort built upon the crushed spirits of children is but a delusion that feeds ghosts and unleashes fresh terrors.”

…We’re losing our way. We have hardened our hearts. I fear we have devalued the currency of mercy. Children have asked for bread and we gave them stones. So turn back. I beg you. For the children’s sake. For the sake of this nation’s spirit. Raise us back up to our best selves. Turn back while there’s still time.”

The speech was originally posted here.

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Australian Palliative Care Conference