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Australia to Canada: Help us with refugee crisis

May 26, 2016

Vancouver Sun | Ottawa — Canada is being called upon to help Australia deal with more than 2,000 asylum seekers being detained for years in miserable conditions on remote South Pacific islands.

The issue caused headlines this week during Australia’s election campaign when a Labor MP said the next government should work with the United Nations to find safe third countries to relocate genuine refugees.

Asked during a televised interview to identify likely countries to send confirmed refugees, Labor MP Anthony Albanese replied: “There are a range of countries that are possibilities. Canada, for example, is an obvious one.”

Labor leader Bill Shorten, whose party is leading in the latest polls, appeared to quickly embrace the idea, noting that Canada’s recent intake of more than 25,000 Syrian refugees “certainly does make our government’s efforts not look in any fashion heroic compared to that.”

He called Canada “an excellent settlement country and we would certainly make it a priority” while working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to resettle refugees held in detention centres in Nauru, a tiny South Pacific island state 3,000 kilometres from the Australian coast, and Manus Island, which is part of Papua New Guinea.

The charity group responsible for protecting refugee families on Nauru subsequently issued a statement supporting Labor’s position.

“The Australian government must be prepared to negotiate with countries like Canada as a potential permanent place of resettlement and protection for people who have fled persecution and conflict, and spent years detained in Nauru or Manus Island,” said Save the Children Australia.

The Canadian government had little to say about the matter other than note it hasn’t formally discussed the matter with Australia.

There have been no official talks between Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and the Australian Government to resettle in Canada asylum seekers that are currently under the responsibility of Australia,” said Felix Corriveau, a spokesman in the office of Immigration Minister John McCallum. “It would be inappropriate to make further comment on the election platforms or proposed policies of political parties during the Australian election campaign.

Australia launched its so-called “Pacific Solution” in 2001 to discourage the inflow of smuggled migrants, mainly from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Myanmar and Vietnam, arriving on rickety vessels from Indonesia.

The new policy, which had the support of both the Liberal-National government as well as the Labor opposition, required them to be detained on islands far from Australia’s shores.

The program was ended in 2008, but four years later it was revived as the government declared that there would be “no possibility” that anyone trying to land in Australia without a visa would ever be given residency.

In 2013, Amnesty International visited Manus Island and said conditions were “tantamount to torture.”

Australia’s hard-line position has been tested by recent events, including the self-immolation of two detainees at the Nauru detention centre to protest miserable living conditions, including filth, abuse, and poor access to health care, food and water.

A second pressure point was the decision last month by Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court to rule that the Manus Island centre is illegal and must be shut down.

An undated photo obtained from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection on February 18, 2014 shows the interior of a tent at Australia's regional processing centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
An undated photo obtained from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection on February 18, 2014 shows the interior of a tent at Australia’s regional processing centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. DEP IMMIGRATION & BORDER PROTECT / AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Earlier this month, the UN Refugee Agency, responding to the self-immolations that left a young Iranian man dead and a young Somali woman in critical condition, condemned the situation.

“There is no doubt that the current policy of offshore processing and prolonged detention is immensely harmful,” the UN agency said in a statement.

Asked where they should be sent given Australia’s hard-line position, a UN official responded: “That’s a matter for the government concerned … in this case, the Australian government.”

If Australia formally sought Canada’s help it would present an unusual situation, since both are western developed nations and signatories to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention that legally obliges states to protect refugees.

Canada is helping poorer countries like Lebanon and Jordan to deal with the flood of refugees from war-ravaged Syria.

Would Canada then pivot to the South Pacific to take asylum seekers rejected by a wealthy western ally and friendly competitor with Canada for Asian markets?

Save The Children Canada spokeswoman Cicely McWilliam said the international organization’s Australian counterpart has also pushed its government to accept its responsibility under the 1951 UN accord.

But McWilliam said the key priority has to be the families languishing for years in detention centres in miserable conditions, where they sometimes walk shoeless in human filth and where women are subjected to the frequent threat of rape and other forms of abuse.

If Australia refuses to budge from its hardline policy, then “by all means they should be considered as refugee claimants” in Canada, she said.

The only known recent case of refugees from one of the islands settling in Canada took place in November, when Syrian teen Ali Kharsa and his father Ahmed, after three years on Nauru, were flown to Saskatoon.

They had been sponsored by Ahmed Kharsa’s wife, who along with her other children had been accepted into Canada as refugees.

The family had fled from Aleppo, Syria, in 2012 and sought refugee status in Malaysia, but while waiting the son and father tried to get to Australia by hiring a smuggler.

An overjoyed Ali Kharsa told an Australian media outlet in February that he wants to study in Canada to become a human rights lawyer in order to to help others escape Nauru.

“I don’t believe I’m here (in Canada). Nauru is a black hole. You never get out.”

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