Image courtesy of GetUp!

On Sunday 14th February, I will be in conversation with Shane Prince (Barrister and Co Convenor of Labor for Refugees) and Matt Thistlewaite MP (Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Immigration) at a fringe event of the NSW ALP State Conference.

It is important to note that Labor for Refugees is not an official arm of the Labor Party, and does not speak for the party. It is made up of party members and trade unionists who, in 2001, committed themselves to updating and improving Labor Party Policy on refugees and asylum seekers. According to a Labor for Refugees publication, the group has been instrumental in improvements to National Policy at the National Conferences of the ALP over the past decade and more.

At the 2015 National Conference of the ALP, improvements to Labor’s refugee policies were made but major Labor for Refugees priorities were not adopted. Most significantly the ALP did not vote to oppose turning back boats. These are the commitments the ALP did make:

• $450 million to be given to the UN for regional processing in Indonesia so that asylum seekers do not have to get on boats.

• An increase in the humanitarian intake to 27,000.

• Children and families out of detention as much as possible.

• A Children’s Commissioner to be charged with the protection and safety of children while in detention including the power to prosecute for detention centre abuses.

• A commitment to the more humane treatment of asylum seekers in detention.

• The abolition of TPVs.

• The commitment of a Labor Government to enshrining our international obligations in federal legislation.

In preparation for this conference, I read about Labor’s approach to our migration policies in the Labor National Platform, which covers Labor’s national policy on refugees and applies to all Party members across Australia. It is inspiring in its references to compassion, fairness and generosity. However, at most points you will find loopholes in their language to mitigate ‘commitments’.

Within it you will find that Labor recognises the legality of asylum seekers’ right to seek protection and asylum regardless of the mode of arrival and rejects the practice of referring to asylum seekers as ‘illegals’. As such, the ALP states it will not punish people for their mode of arrival, but will continue the mandatory detention of ‘unauthorised’ arrivals for management of health, identity and security risks. The ALP will ‘strive to ensure’ people will be detained for no longer than 90 days. According to the Platform, indefinite detention is not acceptable, so it will be subject to ‘regular review’. My favourite is a commitment to ‘aspiration of certainty’.

You can understand my cynicism. The party’s public actions are contradictory to everything the Platform says the ALP stands for. In the latest challenge to our detention centre regime, the Coalition government couldn’t have retrospectively changed legislation to legalise offshore detention without the ALP’s support. Just this week, Bill Shorten failed to support the #LetThemStay campaign and the 91 children facing deportation to Nauru and yet, the ALP states in their National Platform that ‘every humanely practical effort will be taken to remove children and their families from immigration detention centres’.

Despite my distrust of the symbolic gestures of the ALP, there are promising signs. The party has committed to building a regional framework with South East Asia nations, to be a major contributor to the UNHCR and to lead international debate on the establishment of best practice framework for resettlement. One hopes that this means they will reintroduce the UNHCR resettlement programs from Indonesia to Australia that the Coalition government has dismantled.

This Sunday is an opportunity to test how much of the ALP’s Platform is a commitment to action rather than vague ideas and morals. If you have any questions or issues you’d like me to raise. Get in contact with me before 9am tomorrow.

The motion Labor for Refugees NSW will be submitting to the conference follows:

People Seeking Asylum Conference calls on the next Federal Labor Government to:

1. Ensure no children are kept in detention. Rather, they will be placed into community-run reception centres together with their families.

2. Increase Australia’s humanitarian intake to at least 30,000.

3. Close off-shore processing centres in Manus, Nauru and Christmas Island and transfer all detainees to Australia for on-shore processing.

4. End indefinite detention and implement a 30 day processing rule to be included in the Immigration Act (Cth).

5. Provide legal aid for people seeking asylum.

6. Abolish Temporary Protection Visas.

7. Increase funding for the UNHCR.

8. Have mandatory reporting of abuse in detention.

9. Create independent bodies to:

   9.1 advocate for asylum seeker children, with the capacity to bring legal action on their behalf;

   9.2 provide oversight of detention centres;

   9.3 establish an independent commission to inform the public on the facts on refugees and people seeking asylum.

10. Ensure that the provisions of the UN Refugee Convention and UN human rights instruments, to which Australia is signatory, are included in Australian asylum seeker and refugee domestic law and policy.

11. To achieve the cooperation required to reach sustainable regional processing arrangements, reject policies which turn away asylum-seeker boats.

12. Engage with Australia’s neighbours to seek humane and effective solutions to the movement of people seeking asylum through the region. This approach will include multilateral engagement, particularly through the Bali process.

13. Maintain levels of foreign aid sufficient to address the root causes, improve conditions and the rule of law in the places from which people are escaping.

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