Applying facts and logic in the asylum seeker issue

The issue of asylum seekers arriving on our shores in boats has been highly politicized, so much so that the political players have locked themselves into positions from which they cannot or will not retreat.

The Pacific Solution
We all know the history. It began in 2001 with John Howard’s ‘Pacific Solution’ that included detention and processing of boat arrivals on Nauru and Manus Island, Temporary Protection Visas that precluded the bringing out of the families of those who had arrived, and ‘turning the boats around’, something that was done on a few occasions, in some instances, such as in the case of Siev X, with the tragic loss of 353 lives.

Seventy per cent of asylum seekers sent to Nauru and Manus Island were found to be genuine; 30 percent were sent home. Forty three per cent were resettled in Australia; the remainder was settled in other countries, mostly New Zealand. While the Pacific Solution was in place there were fewer arrivals by boat.

In response to the anguish of those who were kept in Nauru for long periods, many of whom suffered severe mental health problems, the number of families separated for long periods under the TPV system, and the fact that 70 percent ended up here or in NZ anyway, the Rudd Government was persuaded to close Nauru, abandon TPVs, and on advice from naval authorities, refrain from turning boats around, as this was considered unsafe as it put asylum seekers and service personnel at unnecessary risk. The number of boat arrivals increased, and is still high.

Alternative proposals
The Gillard Government sought a collaborative regional approach to curb boat arrivals that was to involve neighbouring countries, with regional processing of refugees, first proposing East Timor as a venue, and more recently Malaysia.

The Coalition has had just one policy: offshore processing via Howard’s Pacific Solution, a policy they insist worked then and will work now. Q.E.D.

The Greens oppose offshore processing and want everyone processed here in Australia.

How big a refugee problem do we have?
Let’s now examine briefly the extent of the problem. In his 18 June article in the SMH National Times: Abbott’s evil policy work, Malcolm Fraser gives this contemporary data: “In 2010-11, 4730 asylum seekers arrived by boat. During the same period, more than 13 million people crossed our borders and arrived in Australia; 4730 out of 13.9 million is not a ''system vulnerable to abuse''.

This is hardly an ‘invasion’, as some like to represent it. In fact, compared with many European nations who have many thousands arriving each month, our ‘problem’ is quite minor. But in the minds of the electorate, it constitutes a major assault on our borders, a view perpetuated by the Opposition, which makes political capital from every new boat arrival.

It was John Howard in 2001 who created this extraordinary fear of ‘irregular boat arrivals’ with his post-Tampa and ‘kid’s overboard’ vow: “We will decide who come to this country and the circumstances in which they come”, an utterance that had resulted in boat people being reviled. They were stigmatized with terms such as ‘illegals’, and ‘cashed up queue jumpers’, and of course, as many were of Middle Eastern origin and Muslim, the stigma was accentuated.

Given that background, let’s analyze the contemporary issues.

‘Stop the boats’
There seems to be no one who does not want to stop people getting on fishing boats in Indonesia to traverse the treacherous waters between there and Christmas Island. Everyone says they want the boat traffic to stop.

The Government and the Coalition believe a deterrent is needed to stop asylum seekers boarding boats bound for Christmas Island. They disagree on what constitutes an effective one. More of that later.

The Greens’ solution
The Greens seem to believe that if Australia increased its intake, say to 20,000 per annum, and was more welcoming to asylum seekers, they would not get on leaky boats. They have never explained how increasing the annual intake from the present 13,500 to 20,000 (and remember the Coalition offered to do this over three years) would stop those not within the intake from coming on boats anyway.

We know there are countless asylum seekers, indeed millions around the world, and in neighbouring countries, several hundred thousand. The Jakarta Post reports that: “The number of asylum seekers entering Indonesia has drastically increased by 800 per cent,” but is still comparatively small compared with Pakistan, which received 1 million refugees; Iran 800,000; Thailand 100,000; and Malaysia 98,000.

There is no way that Australia could possibly take all who seek asylum, either logistically or politically. There must be a quota, and that means that some are selected, while others are not. What do those not selected then do? Wait patiently for their turn? Some will because they have no resources to do otherwise. But will those who do have money wait? Unlikely. Why would they wait their turn if money could short circuit the wait and get them to Australia quickly? Many of those arriving in recent times have purchased a package deal from criminal gangs of people smugglers whereby they receive a cheap airfare to Malaysia or Indonesia, and a place on a boat for around $10,000. Will they wait their turn, which might take years? No, they will buy their way onto a people smuggler’s boat. The well off always have an advantage over those less well off.

Only this week Sarah Hanson-Young visited Indonesia to seek a ‘solution’, and on AM reported this as follows: “Eighteen months ago when Australia took more people from Indonesia, more people than they usually do, it made a dramatic difference to the numbers of people boarding boats. The numbers dropped.” This assertion was not accompanied by any data. How many is ‘more people’; how much is ‘dramatic’. She added little, other than a few platitudes.

Christine Milne has now upped the ante by advocating an increase in the annual intake to 25,000 to ‘solve’ the boat arrivals problem, but as that is a very tiny fraction of those seeking asylum from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and other countries, how does that help the hundreds of thousands left behind?

If Australia were to increase its intake ten or twenty or thirty fold, and guaranteed processing would be complete in a few weeks, there would be much less inclination for people to pay people smugglers large sums of money and take the inordinate risk of travelling on unsafe boats. Clearly though that intake would be politically unacceptable and a logistic nightmare.

Moreover, given that not all of those seeking asylum could come at once, how would their processing and acceptance be managed. Would the most deserving, those who had suffered most and waited longest, those escaping the most awful persecution, even if they had no resources or money, be given preference? That would seem to be the most just way. If that were so, what would the less deserving, and the most recent arrivals in Indonesia, but who have resources and cash, do? Get on boats, of course.

I invite any Greens supporter to tell us precisely how enlarging our intake to the extent suggested, and opening our arms in welcome, will stop people getting on boats when there are so many more who desperately want to come to our country than we are prepared to take. And while you are at it, tell us how those accepted in our quota for asylum will get here, if not on leaky boats. Will we fly them here at our expense, or provide safe sea transport?

The Greens never give us such practical detail; all we get is high sounding idealism, embellished with sad stories of how desperate many asylum seekers are and what awful conditions have forced them from their homes. It’s fine to have ideals and compassion; we all have them. But let’s hear the practicalities. Without them, it’s just idle talk.

Mike Carlton had this to say in 7 July piece in the SMH: “…the Greens's policy of an open door and onshore processing would have the people smugglers thinking all their Eid al-Fitrs had come at once. There would be many, many more boats, and many more of them lost, with many more men women and children drowned.

“And for those tens of thousands that do arrive safely by sea, how exactly would the Greens deal with them? You can't just dump them all in Cabramatta, as we did with the Vietnamese 40 years ago. The cost of housing, health and education would be humungous and, like it or not, the average taxpayer simply would not cop it.”

While leaving the Greens to tell us how they will achieve their aims, what of the offshore processing that both Government and Opposition espouse.

The Opposition’s solution
The Opposition insists that as the Pacific Solution ‘worked’ in 2001, it will ‘work’ now. This contention conveniently ignores the changed circumstances eleven years later, in 2012. Apart from ‘push factors’ being greater than they were in 2001, the salient difference now is that people smugglers know full well that seventy percent of those processed on Nauru or Manus Island ended up where they wanted to be – here or in NZ. They can easily market their boat trade by giving that seventy percent guarantee, and virtually a hundred per cent guarantee to anyone who ends up being classed as a ‘genuine refugee’. That’s a pretty marketable offer. But the Opposition persists with its ‘it worked then and will work now’ mantra, although it is as aware of these facts as are the people smugglers.

Andrew Metcalfe and Immigration Department officers insist that the Pacific Solution will NOT work now because the people smugglers know what happened last time. Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and Coalition members know that, but it makes not the slightest impact on their sloganeering because they have no interest in the truth, only in what they can persuade the electorate to believe.

Moreover, they ignore the terrible mental trauma suffered by those incarcerated on Nauru and Manus Island, often for years. Despair, depression, and other mental illness afflicted many, the scars of which persist. Indeed, many believed that this ‘punishment’ was a deliberate Coalition ploy, a central part of the deterrent value of the Pacific Solution.

Let’s look now at another element of the Opposition’s asylum policy – Temporary Protection Visas. This was another ‘punishment’. Because those who held them were not permitted to bring out their family members, long and emotionally traumatic periods of separation occurred. So painful was this, that many family members attempted the boat journey in order to join their loved ones. Some perished on the way. Psychiatrists were so appalled at the mental suffering of those holding TPVs, and their families, that they advised against them. This persuaded the Rudd Government to abandon them.

The third element – turning the boats around was highly contentious and still is. Tony Abbott is vigorously echoing this element to this very day, on Insiders. He says: ‘…they did it safely before, we can do it safely again’. In doing so, Abbott ignores the advice of naval authorities, which insist it is dangerous to both asylum seekers and the service personnel who have to turn the boat around. The former chief of the defense force and head of Navy under the Howard government, Admiral Chris Barrie, told ABC radio this past week that it was not possible to ''mount an impermeable barrier at sea'', and that it was dangerous for all involved to tow or turn around boats. We all know that under these circumstances asylum seekers have damaged their boats and disabled their motors to force a rescue and achieve transport to Christmas Island.

In response to Admiral Barrie, hairy-chested Abbott upped the ante by insisting that commanders of naval vessels were subject to the will of the civilian government, an assertion challenged by Barrie: ''Policy can't override international law and cannot tell a commanding officer what decisions he must make at sea at the time''. Professor Don Rothwell, international law expert at ANU, agreed: “…there was no firm legal basis for turning asylum boats around.”

Not satisfied, Abbott then came out and said that naval personnel would remove fuel from vessels nearer to Indonesia to stop them continuing to Christmas Island. He did not explain how these officers would know how much fuel to remove so that the boat could return to Indonesia, perhaps in heavy sea conditions, yet prevent it from proceeding to Australia. But that matters nothing to Abbott who wishes only to show the electorate now tough and resolute he is, something the rednecks would applaud. On Insiders this morning David Marr did give an explanation. You can hear it here.

Abbott is hairy-chested not just with the Australian electorate, but also with the Indonesian Government.

Abbott says he would need to boost the navy and to travel to Indonesia to deliver ‘the tough message’. Scott Morrison said a Coalition government would ''…fix things up on our side of the fence'' and expect the Indonesian government to ''do more'' to stop vessels.” Asked whether Indonesia would accept the forced return of boats, Abbott aggressively insisted: ''The legal home of these vessels, Indonesian flagged, Indonesian crewed, Indonesian ported, is in Indonesia.''

But a senior Indonesian official said Indonesia would object strongly to the Coalition's policy of forcing asylum boats back into Indonesian waters. ''It's exactly like you going to someone else's house and throwing dirt there,'' the official said, on the condition of anonymity. ''Why would we take something that is not our property?''

“There are also practical problems with the turn-around policy, the official said. Unless the boats were to be abandoned on the high seas, or handed over to the Indonesian navy mid-ocean, they would need to be towed to land. But there is no safe port on Java's southern shore because the seas are too high and dangerous. This would mean the Australian navy towing an asylum boat to Tanjung Priok, Jakarta's commercial and military port, which is many hours' sail away on Java's northern shore. The source said the Australian navy would never be given permission for this kind of incursion into Indonesian waters. ''It's impossible for a military ship to get security clearance and border clearance,'' the source said."

That seems to put paid to Abbott’s ‘we’ll turn back the boats’ threat. It is simply hot air, but we can be sure he will persist with it, and many will believe him. On Insiders this morning, David Marr reiterated Indonesia’s determination to not receive returned boats. He described Abbott’s notion that he could send boats back to Indonesia as ‘fantasy’.

It is noteworthy that only two other countries are known to have turned boats back - Italy sent boats back to Libya in 2009 and Thailand pushed Rohingya Burmese out to sea. Both countries have now stopped the practice.

Referring to the Abbott’s ‘evil’ policy, Malcolm Fraser concludes his article with: “Instead of restoring ''integrity and public confidence'', the Coalition's policy is detrimental to people seeking asylum, breaches our obligations under the Refugee Convention and appears to work from the position of the assumption of guilt.”

The Gillard Government solution
So what of the Gillard Government’s policy? Apart from its willingness to reopen Nauru as a compromise to the Coalition despite professional advice that this would be ineffectual, and to reconsider TPVs, its main policy thrust is its arrangement with the Malaysian Government to return up to 800 boat people in exchange for five times that number resettled in Australia, an arrangement Abbott describes as ‘a people swap and a dud deal for Australia’.

It is strongly believed by the Government that placing boat arrivals on a flight to Malaysia within a day or two of their arrival on Christmas Island would be a powerful deterrent. Even the mention of this before the High Court struck down its implementation, was followed by a drop in arrivals. How could people smugglers sell passages to Christmas Island when all arrivals there were to be immediately sent to Malaysia to wait for processing there, perhaps for years – to go back, as it were ‘to the end of the queue’?

The Government of Malaysia has given guarantees of proper treatment and adherence to human rights for those returned. It has also guaranteed that those returned could work and their children attend school.

Abbott has attacked the Malaysia arrangement on the grounds that Malaysia is not a signatory to the UNHCR Convention on refugees and that human rights are therefore not guaranteed. This is a grossly hypocritical argument since his current policy includes sending boats back to Indonesia, a non-signatory, and all the time the Coalition used Nauru, it too was a non-signatory.

If the object is to deter people from taking the hazardous boat journey from Indonesia to Christmas Island, there seems to be no better deterrent than the Malaysia arrangement. As it now stands, boats are coming every few days, often calling for help, in a recent instance only fifty miles on the journey from Indonesia, and even when told to turn back, continued to proceed to Christmas Island. Asylum seekers were thereby thumbing their noses at Australia and its maritime services, which the boat people expected to ‘rescue’ them if they got into distress. Sadly, in recent weeks over a hundred people have drowned.

At the end of his article, Mike Carlton drew this conclusion: “Deeply flawed though it is, the government's so-called Malaysian solution is the least worse option we have.”

So where does this analysis of facts and the application of logic leave us?

Many who blog here would like our nation to make asylum seekers welcome, to erase the stigma that attaches to them, to increase very substantially the number admitted, to have them come here safely, to integrate them into our society, to have them contribute to our country and to live happy and productive lives free from the persecution they suffered back home.

But unless the numbers accepted increase massively, unless processing time is reduced to just a few weeks, unless safe transport to Australia is provided, asylum seekers will continue to pay people smugglers for a passage to Christmas Island on unsafe boats and make the perilous journey. Some will perish. This is what everyone with an ounce of compassion in his or her heart wants to avoid. They want the hazardous boat traffic stopped.

How does Australia stop asylum seekers risking their lives on unsafe boats? No ‘solution’ is ideal; none is perfect. We are left choosing the least imperfect.

The Greens’ solution seems to be impractical and almost certainly ineffective. The boats will keep coming.

The Coalition solution is highly unlikely to be an effective one as the people smugglers will guarantee their clients that if they are genuine refugees, it is almost certain they will be resettled in Australia or New Zealand, which is just what they want. The boats will keep coming.

The only solution that seems to have any chance of being effective is the Government’s Malaysia arrangement. Tony Abbott won’t support it, not because of the human rights issues that he says concern him, but because he fears it will work and he will lose a key political lever against the Government. He is prepared to see people continue to risk their lives on leaky boats for his own political advantage. He won’t even join a cross party committee to discuss alternatives. His ulterior motives are transparent.

In my view, with the current intake and the long wait so many have, the Malaysia arrangement is the ONLY practical way to deter arrivals on unsafe boats. If this could be a precursor to a broader regional agreement under the “Bali Process” – Building Regional Cooperation to Combat People Smuggling and Trafficking in Persons, a definitive solution that all in the region could endorse just might be possible.

What do you think?