We asked an immigration lawyer for thoughts on the recent Manus Island situation

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What are my thoughts? Well, I think “humanitarian disaster” is probably a good way to describe it.

Papua New Guinea is a country with many of its own development and human rights challenges.  I don’t know if many Australians appreciate just how serious and endemic the problems PNG has.

Things like sexual and gender-based violence, tribal violence and inter-tribal conflict plague large areas of the country. Basic services and amenities are at times impossible to access.

It’s not a safe environment to be throwing new, vulnerable and effectively stateless people into.

And when a country has enough of its own problems to deal with, local communities are, predictably, going to be suspicious of outside interference.

It’s unfair to the local population for the Australian government to demand that they absorb a group of people who have come to seek protection in Australia (not PNG) – especially when the Australian government has refused to do the same.

In Australian migration law, we put this idea of “sovereignty” so high.

I understand the principles behind that. But there’s a point where we have to say, “There is a floor beneath which we shouldn’t sink in how we treat people. Beyond that floor there is no justification for it.” This is the essence of human rights law.

Especially because, in many of these cases, it’s really hard to point to what the actual threat to our sovereignty is.

It costs Australia so much money to hold people in places like Manus and Nauru. It costs so much more than if the government were to allow them to live and work and contribute to the Australian economy.  That’s without even considering the social and human cost to the people involved.

It’s also a dark irony that the government has said there is no money to fund legal centres like RACS, which provide legal services for people seeking asylum, but it is willing to spend so much money on their imprisonment and mistreatment.

Why is there not more outrage among Australians?

The numbers have been run. At the moment the government is aware that there’s a significant part of the population who feel we should treat refugees better.

But there’s also a significant group who have some ingrained views in the other direction. And everyone else in the middle is hard to mobilise either way.

If something is egregious enough that people in the middle say, “Whoa that’s wrong!” Then maybe it’s enough. Then maybe we get outrage over the mark. But otherwise, we wind up with a sort of indifference to policies that can be unfair and cruel to the individuals and societies that they affect.

I think everyone’s become a bit jaded.

Guarding the rule of law requires speaking truth to powerful people.

We don’t have a bill of rights in Australia but we have a common law tradition. There are basic ideas like the right to see evidence against you, procedural fairness, knowing the charges that are laid against you.

These principles are part and parcel of our heritage as a society that we take for granted but are worth protecting.

You could say that the treatment of people seeking asylum is a bit like the boiling frog metaphor. Why haven’t more people in the Australian community stood up in protest at the gradual but egregious erosion of the rights of people seeking asylum and the disregard of our international obligations?

Interview by Kate Allman with immigration lawyer Mitchell Skipsey from the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS)