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Why Australia’s asylum seeker policy needs to change

When Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill announced plans to close the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre after its Supreme Court found that the detention of people there was illegal, a political debate over Australia’s asylum seeker policy erupted again.

Manus Island, located in Papua New Guinea, is operated on behalf of the Australian Government. It was set up in 2001 as part of the Howard Government’s ‘Pacific Solution’ policy and is one of two offshore processing centres (the other is Nauru Regional Processing Centre). In the last financial year these centres have cost Australia more than $1.2 billion.

The decision to close the Manus Island centre has created tension between the Australian Government and opposition. With an election looming, the lives of more than 900 people are subject to political games. Despite the fact that many of those currently held at Manus Island are classified as legitimate refugees, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has said that none will be resettled in Australia. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has echoed his sentiments, stating that ‘we can’t let the empathy we feel cloud our judgement’. On the other hand, opposition MPs have called for the asylum seekers to be settled in Australia.

Professor of International Politics at Deakin University, Damien Kingsbury, says the closure of the Manus Island centre gives both the government and opposition an opportunity to rethink their policies on how Australia treats asylum seekers. ‘Australia’s current asylum seeker policy is shameful, and is one that future generations will look back upon as a dark stain on our political history,’ he says.

'Australia's current asylum seeker policy is shameful, and is one that future generations will look back upon as a dark stain on our political history'

Professor Damien Kingsbury,
Deakin University

‘Those who will now have to be moved from Manus and who have been confirmed as genuine refugees should be given that refugee status in Australia immediately,’ he says. In addition, Prof. Kingsbury says those seeking clarification of their status should now have it expedited.

He also points out that concern about deaths at sea and asylum seeker welfare – while very much an issue – is a political tool, ‘indirectly appealing to ignorance and xenophobia’. Although Prof. Kingsbury doesn’t suggest an open door policy is necessarily the solution, he calls for a humane process for asylum seeker claims in transit countries. ‘Australia needs to bring its refugee intake into line with the Organisation Economic Cooperation and Development average which, per capita, would bring it to around 50,000 refugees a year, rather than the current 13,000,’ he argues.

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Professor Damien Kingsbury 
Professor Damien Kingsbury 

Professor of International Politics, Deakin University
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