Foreign Affairs

Australia refugee policy world’s ‘most cruel’ - global health expert

Australia’s federal election could see the country finally take up New Zealand’s refugee resettlement offer. Laura Walters talks to a global health expert who describes Australia’s refugee policy as one of the world’s cruelest.

The possibility of a change of government across the ditch means New Zealand’s offer to resettle Manus Island and Nauru refugees is firmly back on the table.

A top global health expert says this would be a step in the right direction for those who have suffered for years under one of the world’s cruelest refugee policies.

Former Prime Minister John Key made the initial offer to resettle up to 150 refugees a year who had been refused entry to Australia due to its hardline ‘turn back the boats’ policy.

This offer has been reiterated numerous times by the current Government.

Soon after taking office, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern caused strain in the trans-Tasman after she repeatedly brought up the offer, saying it was more important to do what was right than what was popular.

The offer has not been a recent topic of conversation, however, the looming Australia federal election has again brought the issue to the fore.

The Australian reported Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton pulled border protection into the election campaign just over a week before polling day by accusing Labor of going “soft on turning back boats”.

Georgetown Professor and global health expert Lawrence Gostin says if Australia won't let the asylum seekers in, it should accept New Zealand's resettlement offer. Photo: David Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

Meanwhile, Labor leader Bill Shorten said he was calling out the coalition’s border control policy, which he said aimed to scare people about asylum seekers arriving by boat.

He questioned why the New Zealand deal, which had been on the table since 2013, had not been accepted.

“The point about it is, if we’ve got people who have been in indefinite detention already for six or seven years, let’s move them on. Let’s find third-party countries, that’s all. Let’s not fall for the government’s scare campaign,” he told media on the campaign trail.

While the gap has been closing between Labor and the Coalition, according to the latest Ipsos poll for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age shows Labor maintains its lead in the campaign, ahead by 51 to 49 percent.

Labor’s Bill Shorten is gaining in the preferred prime minister stakes, but is still behind current Australian leader Scott Morrison, according to the poll.

‘Treatment unlawful and unethical’

While Australia prepares to go to the polls, global health experts are preparing to meet at the World Health Assembly, where World Health Organisation leaders and other health law experts are calling on the assembly to adopt the WHO’s Global Action Plan to Protect the Health of Refugees and Migrants to better achieve the human right to health for the world’s most vulnerable people.

The call to action has been published in the medical journal The Lancet, with a group of experts highlighting the importance of the health and humane treatment of migrants and refugees.

The expert leading the call is Georgetown University faculty director of the university’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, and director of a WHO Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, Lawrence Gostin.

Any migrant seeking asylum from a genuine fear for their life were entitled to a fair hearing and to humane treatment and health care services, Gostin said.

"That policy is tantamount to inhuman and degrading treatment of a deeply vulnerable population."

“While there are disparate laws - country by country - governing the humane care and treatment of migrants and refugees, there is one universal right. All migrants and refugees must be afforded the human right to quality health care.”

Australia’s government’s had not observed these standards, citing its own domestic immigration policy as reason to keep asylum seekers and refugees in detention facilities outside Australia.

In recent years there had been a raft of stories about the conditions endured by those being held on Manus Island and Nauru, including horrific accounts of suicide attempts, attacks by locals, and other physical health issues.

Gostin called into question Australia’s approach, saying wider humanitarian obligation always superseded domestic law and politics.

Domestic law should be in conformance both with international legal obligations and with wider humanitarian ethics.

“No country has a right to treat human beings in ways that harm their physical and mental health or which degrade them.”

Australia’s policy was among the most cruel to refugees in the world, he said.

Gostin taught at the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne, so was familiar with the country’s advanced social policies.

"Very sadly, international law is hard to enforce and it is hard to hold governments into account."

“But the treatment of Manus Island and Nauru refugees by successive Australian governments has been both unlawful and unethical.

“That policy is tantamount to inhuman and degrading treatment of a deeply vulnerable population,” he told Newsroom.

The global health expert’s preference was for a lawful process of hearing asylum claims, and if legitimate, to resettle migrants in Australia.

However, it did not appear either the Coalition or Labor planned to change its policy on allowing asylum seekers who arrived by boat.

If Australia continued to refuse to allow the Manus and Nauru refugees into the country, it should accept New Zealand's offer of resettlement, Gostin said.

If Labor did win the election this weekend, and Shorten followed through with his rhetoric around the New Zealand resettlement offer that would be a step in the right direction.

However, any country should still be held accountable for the way it treated vulnerable migrants, he said.

“Very sadly, international law is hard to enforce and it is hard to hold governments into account.”

Global health experts call for action

Health ministry leaders representing WHO’s 194 member states would gather next week for the World Health Assembly in Geneva to decide priorities and strategies for the WHO.

The future of health for migrants and refugees would be one of the highest priorities during the assembly, with the leaders calling migration “a defining issue of our time”. One in four people around the world are migrants.

It’s also one of the most controversial issues, with the recent UN Global Migration Compact leading to protests and backlash from the far-right, across the world.

The action plan came out of a 2017 WHO draft framework of priorities and guiding principles to promote refugee and migrant health.

"Unless we afford migrants equal benefits, the health equity gap will only widen. And that is unconscionable."

The plan’s priorities encompassed quality healthcare, occupational health and safety, mental health, public health, and social determinants of health for refugees.

“This is a pivotal moment to fulfil the pledge to universal health coverage and to health equity,” Gostin and others write in The Lancet piece.

The experts said a key step was for every state to develop an action plan to implement the GAP priorities, embedding migrants’ health rights into domestic law.

This would transform the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable people, and their health would determine human development for decades to come, they said.

“With climate change and political instability, even more of us will be on the move ... As a global community, we promised to ‘leave no one behind’.

"Unless we afford migrants equal benefits, the health equity gap will only widen. And that is unconscionable."

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