Out of sight, out of mind?

Two weeks ago I attended a hearing of the Parliament’s Migration Committee which heard clear evidence that Australian businesses in many areas are still finding it difficult to find available workers, for unskilled as well as skilled and semi-skilled work. This situation not only inhibits earnings for those businesses, it costs all Australians by keeping economic activity and earnings below capacity.

A week later, I was in Nauru looking over newly renovated facilities, funded by the Australian taxpayer, to house refugees recently removed from Australian territory by our government.

Many hundreds of refugees – most of them from Afghanistan and Iraq – were sent to Nauru by Australia in 2001, and after tens of millions dollars spent by the Australian government over four or five years trying to create the false impression these people were undesirables who should be kept out, they were acknowledged to be refugees and brought back to Australia.

Many of them immediately started working in jobs, such as in the meatworks and agricultural industries, in states all over Australia – the same type of jobs I keep being told we can’t find enough workers for.

Every year, Australia allows in more than 100,000 people on Working Holiday visas, which our government promotes as a way to fill labour market gaps in seasonal and unskilled work. By definition, this workforce is transient, many of them only working long enough to earn the money to fund their next bit of fun and adventure.

We spend millions keeping out refugees who experience has shown will reliably perform those jobs and go on to contribute significantly to further building Australia’s future. The human and financial cost of this policy has been enormous.

I was first able to visit Nauru to look at the camps and meet some of the asylum seekers, which at that time included many young children, in 2003. It was over two years before many of them were able to access any meaningful legal assistance to help with their claims. I visited Nauru again in early 2004 and May 2005, as the numbers remaining slowly reduced and Australia began accepting the people it could and should have accepted from the start back in 2001.

It was not until late 2006 that the last person was finally resettled. Over those five years, most were recognised to be refugees, the vast majority ending up in Australia or New Zealand.

Just as the end of this enormously expensive and hugely harmful Pacific ‘Solution’ was finally in sight; the Australian government again sent a whole new set of asylum seekers to wait on Nauru.

So I returned to Nauru for a fourth time, to see what current conditions are like and to meet with some of the 90 asylum seekers now there. Despite our country’s willingness to keep sending so many asylum seekers into this situation, as far as I know, since 2001 no other Australian politician has been to see the conditions we keep the refugees in and to meet directly with them.

The current government of Nauru is different in many ways to the one that was in power in 2001, both in respect to facing up to some of the major challenges in their own country, and in having a clear concern for the well being of the asylum seekers in their country.

There has been major rebuilding and upgrading of facilities – at the cost of millions more Australian taxpayer dollars – and the conditions the refugees are kept in have improved significantly.

Unlike the early years, asylum seekers are allowed free movement around the island during daylight hours, and they have already received visits from people providing legal assistance. The current Nauruan government undoubtedly does not want to see the latest group of asylum seekers subject to a repeat of the past problem of prolonged delays drawn out over many years before their situation is resolved. However, there are already worrying signs, with seven Burmese refugees having been on Nauru for seven months without having an interview regarding their claim.

It cannot be emphasised strongly enough that serious harm occurs to these people from extended uncertainty and lack of control over their future, regardless of the conditions in which they are kept. There is the initial trauma of fleeing persecution, torture and insecurity which is then compounded by being isolated from family, support networks and legal assistance.

The government wont baulk at spending millions of taxpayers dollars on flying officials to and from off-shore facilities, moving asylum seekers from one point to another, upgrading facilities and denying them their basic human rights but they have great difficulty coming to terms with the long term cost of their policies.

The human and financial cost of off-shore detention will continue to be enormous, and completely unnecessary. Adopting measures in other countries to discourage asylum seekers from undertaking dangerous journeys is one thing, but the suggestion that tormenting innocent people who are already in Australia will somehow be a deterrent to people smugglers is simply a furphy.

Why continue to spend a fortune to pointlessly delay these refugees a secure future, and deny ourselves the contribution we know they bring to Australia when they finally receive the opportunity?

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