Australian court allows return of asylum seekers to Nauru

Tens of thousands throughout Australia attend rallies in support of 267 asylum seekers

Protesters in Melbourne   urge the Australian government not to send 267 people – including 37 babies born in Australia – back to immigration detention in Nauru, 3,000km away. Photograph: Chris Hopkins/Getty Images

Protesters in Melbourne urge the Australian government not to send 267 people – including 37 babies born in Australia – back to immigration detention in Nauru, 3,000km away. Photograph: Chris Hopkins/Getty Images

 

Australia’s ambivalence over asylum seekers is dominating headlines again, with churches, writers and thousands of ordinary citizens calling on the government not to send 267 people – including 37 babies born in Australia – back to immigration detention in Nauru, 3,000km away.

The asylum seekers, including two young children who were allegedly sexually assaulted, have been in Australia for medical treatment not available in the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru, but the high court has ruled it is legal for them to be sent offshore again.

It is Australian government policy to detain anyone seeking to enter the country without a valid visa. Those arriving by boat are not allowed ever to settle permanently in Australia – a policy backed both by the Liberal-National government and Labor, the main opposition party.

As part of the so-called “Pacific solution”, asylum seekers are sent to either Nauru or Manus Island (which is part of Papua New Guinea) for processing, which will eventually see them sent back to their home country or settled in a third country.

The issue of the 267 people is shaping up as a serious test for Malcolm Turnbull, who became prime minister five months ago in an internal Liberal party coup, his main selling point being that he wasn’t Tony Abbott – the man he deposed because he was so unpopular with voters.

Turnbull has, so far however, kept faith with every single Abbott policy, from the economy to not pushing for same-sex marriage to asylum seekers.

While the federal Labor Party has kept very quiet about the current situation, its state counterparts have not. Victoria’s state premier, Daniel Andrews, wrote to Turnbull on Saturday offering to help resettle the asylum seekers. Andrews also posted the letter on his Twitter account.

“A sense of compassion is not only in the best interests of these children and their families, it is also in the best interests of our status as a fair and decent nation,” he wrote. “Sending them to Nauru will needlessly expose them to a life of physical and emotional trauma.”

Other state and territory leaders, from both Labor and Liberal parties, have since backed the Victorian premier.

A day after Andrews’s intervention, another letter supporting asylum seekers was made public, this one from 61 prominent Australian writers including Thomas Keneally, Peter Carey and JM Coetzee.

The letter said: “Not only does our current system bring shame to Australia, in its demonstration of brutal government power and disregard for human dignity, it brings shame on us as a nation.”

“Do we wish to live under a government that routinely treats other humans cruelly?” asked Keneally, who won the Booker prize for Schindler’s Ark. “Can we be sure of our own immunity to cruel treatment when such practices are . . . common, no matter how secretive immigration authorities are about the entire detention system.

“We must not forget that – despite the rhetoric we’re hearing these days – refugees are the first victims of terror, not its source.”

The letter also referenced Dr Peter Young, the former director of mental health services for Australia’s asylum seekers, who said conditions on Nauru and Manus met the threshold for torture.

“If we take the definition of torture to be the deliberate harming of people in order to coerce them into a desired outcome, I think it does fulfil that definition,” Young said.

Churches around Australia have also offered sanctuary to the asylum seekers facing deportation to Nauru. John Watkins, the chairman of Calvary Health Care, a Catholic organisation that runs 15 hospitals, said their plight could not be ignored.

“Let’s be clear: Nauru and the conditions in which these people were detained either caused or exacerbated their ill health,” he said. “Many of this group are still wrestling with their illnesses or are traumatised at the prospect of their return and need medical attention.

“Sending them back to Nauru will only make them sicker and put them at risk of disease, violence and mental illness. We can’t stand by and watch that happen.”

Watkins, a former Labor deputy premier of New South Wales, added: “If any of these individuals pursue the invitation of churches to seek sanctuary in the cities where our organisations have hospitals and healthcare teams, we’ll do whatever we can to make sure they receive the medical attention they need.”

Tens of thousands of people across Australia have attended protest rallies in support of asylum seekers in recent days, but with a federal election due in six months and bipartisan support for the existing system, they will need a lot more than that to have much effect.

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