I wish that I could have finished this countdown with something more positive. Indeed, I was tempted to elevate the achievement of the Sex Discrimination Amendment Act 2013 to No 1, just so I could end on a high note.
Alas, Australia’s ongoing mistreatment of refugees, including the gross violation of their human rights, is simply too heinous to ignore, and too severe to downplay. And in 2013, these abuses reached a new low, with the then Rudd Government introducing, and the incoming Abbott Government retaining, a new policy to permanently resettle refugees who arrive by boat in Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
More than just a fundamental breach of Australia’s international obligations, this policy is an attempt to permanently turn our backs to the humanity of people fleeing persecution in other countries, people who were seeking our compassion but, when they arrived, found none.
All of this is bad enough to attract the opprobrium of anyone interested in human rights, including LGBTI rights. But there is a special reason for LGBTI activists and advocates to oppose the resettlement of refugees in Nauru and Papua New Guinea – and that is that both countries continue to criminalise male homosexuality, by up to 14 years imprisonment.
While the letter of the law only applies to male homosexuality, any place which criminalises sex between people of the same-sex is not a safe environment to send refugees who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex. The potential dangers of doing so were apparent when the then Gillard Government first announced that Nauru and Manus Island were to be re-opened as ‘offshore processing centres’ in mid-2012.
At the time I wrote to the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, asking him whether the Government supported the rights of LGBTI asylum-seekers, and whether they could guarantee that the laws criminalising homosexuality would not be applied to the people we sent there (original letter: https://alastairlawrie.net/2012/09/07/letter-to-chris-bowen-on-lgbti-asylum-seekers/). A similar letter was sent to then Opposition Immigration Spokesperson Scott Morrison.
It took almost ten months, and some harassment, for the Government to reply, and when they finally did, in June 2013, they did not answer the question – effectively conceding that the criminal laws of Nauru and Papua New Guinea do apply to LGBTI refugees we send there (response here: https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/06/30/lgbti-refugees-on-nauru-manus-island/).
In a sign of things to come, Mr Morrison never replied. All of which meant that I was completely unsurprised by the Amnesty International Report “This is Breaking People”, released on 11 December 2013, which spelled out just how awful the consequences of this policy are for LGBTI asylum seekers (report here: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA12/002/2013/en/b2f135dc-3353-420d-b587-05d2b3db6e2f/asa120022013en.pdf see especially discussion on pages 73-75).
But just because I am unsurprised, does not mean I am not outraged – and you should be too. In short, gay refugees sent to Manus Island are:
- Told that same-sex sexual activities are prohibited
- Told that, if they engage in same-sex sexual activities, they will be reported to PNG Police (despite there being no legal onus for the operators to do so)
- NOT provided with condoms (and with safe-sex education comprising a talk telling them not to have sex) and
- Subject to bullying and harassment from other detainees on the basis of their sexual orientation.
In such circumstances, it is even less surprising that the senior Australian Government official at the camp, Renate Croker, said she was unaware of any person claiming asylum on the basis of persecution due to their LGBTI status.
Not only is this apparently incorrect – with Amnesty International interviewing several gay male asylum-seekers, including at least one quoted as saying he had made a claim on that basis – it also ignores the fact that people can be LGBTI but claim asylum because of persecution on other grounds (eg race, religion).
Indeed, one of the refugees interviewed claimed that other people have considered changing and/or changed their applications to be refer to other grounds, rather than be exposed to further bullying or harassment inside the camp, as well as to minimise the threat of being reported to PNG Police. He further “explained that some gay men have chosen to return to their home countries with IOM [International Organization for Migration]’s assistance, despite the risks they face upon return.”
All of which made the comments of Minister Morrison in response to the report all the more chilling. The following excerpt is taken from Oliver Laughland’s excellent article in the Guardian Australia on 13 December (titled Scott Morrison denies Amnesty report findings on Manus island detention):
Morrison said this [automatic reporting to PNG Police] was not the policy of the government but added all asylum seekers on Manus were provided with “clear advice” on “relevant laws” in Papua New Guinea. Homosexuality is illegal in PNG and can carry a 14-year sentence. Morrison was asked repeatedly by Guardian Australia if the “relevant laws” included those relating to homosexuality but he declined to go into detail, adding: “In these press conferences you get to ask the questions, you don’t get to give the responses as well.” Morrison added that the department was “unaware of any claims or declarations of homosexuality or of any reports of homosexuality being investigated by the police at the centre”. [full article here: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/13/scott-morrison-denies-amnesty-report-findings-on-manus-island-detention).
In short, our current Immigration Minister has all-but confirmed that PNG laws criminalising homosexuality apply to LGBTI refugees sent there, as well as expressing a clear lack of understanding about the nature of sexual orientation, homophobia and the reasons why LGBTI refugees might not want to make a ‘declaration’, including but not limited to the risk of criminal punishment.
All-in-all, the situation confronting LGBTI refugees sent to Manus Island, and by extension, Nauru, is a nightmare. But it cannot be divorced from the broader nightmare that is Australia’s bipartisan ‘Pacific Solution Mark II’. The fact that we are sending any refugees to be processed, and permanently resettled, on Nauru and in PNG is a massive failure of our political system, and of the Australian people for allowing it to happen, for it to be done in our name.
Tragically, as 2013 draws to a close, it is unclear how any of this is going to change. I would like to be able to end this article, and this countdown, by saying something like “Here’s hoping in 2014 we take the first steps towards a humane refugee assessment system.” But the pessimist in me, reflecting on all of the events of the past 12 to 18 months, wants to say instead “Please just don’t let it become any worse”.