Is there any more vexed political issue than that of refugees seeking asylum in this country? It remains so despite the recent advent of the Refugee Resettlement Agreement with Papua New Guinea.
The refugee issue was politicized by Pauline Hansen, and readily taken up by John Howard with the ‘Tampa episode’ and his 2001 election pledge: “We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come.”
Because commentators insisted it was that stand which got him over the line in what was shaping as a probable defeat, politicians on both sides quickly saw the political advantage of being ‘tough on asylum seekers’. Later Howard followed up with his ‘Pacific Solution’. In more recent times Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison have sought to exploit Howard’s line by highlighting every new boat arrival as a Labor failure, now ‘a national emergency’, every drowning as ‘blood on Labor’s hands’, and the dismantling of the Howard three point deterrent plan as a foolish Rudd mistake. Many in the nation’s electorates, especially those in Western Sydney, agree. It is their votes that Labor seeks to retrieve. So we are stuck with this situation, redolent as it is with racial prejudice, sometimes stark xenophobia, and simmering anger directed at asylum seekers and towards any party that allows them to keep coming. This is inflamed by politicians and fanned by a moribund Fourth Estate desperate to retain its relevancy.
Mr Denmore puts it so well in his piece: The Australian Asylum: “There are two dimensions to the refugees issue. One is managing the problem itself - a relatively marginal one for a rich economy that leads the developed world on most economic metrics. The second dimension - and the trickier one - is the theatrics around the issue, a charade kept alive by attention-seeking sections of the news media and the frightened politicians they goad into one piece of policy knee-jerkery after another. The facts of the refugee situation – however many times they are raised – don't seem to register. What matters for the dying institutions of our news media is that this issue is an emotive, eyeball-grabbing one, encompassing age-old fears of brown skinned hordes shattering our cosy, white bread suburban lives. As such, it's tailor-made for endless re-jigging on the front pages of the Tele and the Hun.”
He goes onto say: “That the tabloid anger pendulum swings so shamefacedly from fanning fear of refugees to pleading for their humanity to calling for security crackdowns to castigating the government for the cost of security is neither here nor there. What's important in media terms is that this story is easy fodder for fulmination and vein-popping outrage in dead trees media and on talkback radio. Meanwhile, the refugee issue is manna for political parties desperately seeking to differentiate themselves and cover up the fact that most of the major issues we face are beyond the control of nation states acting on their own (climate change, the structure of the financial system and the global movement of people).
“None of this is to claim that finding policy solutions to the seaborne drift of asylum seekers is easy or that there are not costs involved - strategically, financially or morally. But it would help us all if we were spared the self-serving screeching of the popular media and the grandstanding of populist politicians who jump to its orders in the vague hope of appearing relevant.”
Having read many expositions on asylum-seekers, and having listened to countless politicians and journalists express their opinions about the situation and what ought to be done about it, I am struck with the disjointed way in which this seemingly intractable issue is approached. Every commentator seems to select an angle that suits his or her position, particularly since the introduction of the Regional Resettlement Agreement with the government of PNG. The Greens mouth ‘cruelty’, the Coalition ‘border protection’, and Labor ‘people smugglers’. Seldom do we have the benefit of a commentator who has looked at the problem from every angle, has analyzed each, and has drawn logical conclusions from that analysis. We get a ‘bits and pieces’ approach that too often reflects partisan positions. Predictably, politicians do this habitually, but we ought to expect better from commentators who are able to sit back and view the situation rather more dispassionately. Sadly they too often reflect a partisan bias, born of the media organization’s particular preference. Balanced, fair, factual analysis is virtually dead in the Fourth Estate, as Mr Denmore asserts. It has its own idiosyncratic commercial and ideological agendas to pursue.
Rather than attempting to give my take on the asylum-seeker issue, I though it might be more instructive to step back and detail some of the questions that need to be asked in arriving at a position. Some answers are given – in bold; most of the answers are yours to supply. Have a go at these: What is an asylum-seeker? What is a refugee? There is a great deal of confusion about the difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee and often the terms are used interchangeably or incorrectly. An asylum seeker is someone who is seeking international protection but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined. In contrast, a refugee is someone who has been recognized under the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees to be a refugee. The Convention defines a ‘refugee’ as any person who: “... owing to well‐founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it …” More. Has Australia an obligation as a signatory to the UNHCR Refugee Convention to engage with people seeking asylum? YES. Under the Convention, does Australia continue to have responsibility for finding a country for resettlement if the one to which a genuine refugee is sent cannot accept him/her? YES. How many refugees are there in the world today? At the end of 2012 the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that there were 15.4 million refugees worldwide. By contrast there were 28.8 million internally displaced persons (about twice as many people) at the end of 2012. More . Is it illegal to seek asylum in Australia? NO, no matter whether arriving by boat or air. What proportion of people seeking asylum has arrived in Australia by boat? Figures to 2011 give an idea: In 2008/09 16%; in 2009/10 47%; and in early 2010/11 44% of asylum seekers arrived by boats; the rest by air. Less than a half arrived by boat. More. How does Australia rank in accepting refugees? Australia accepts the third largest number of refugees (including refugees and other humanitarian entrants) for resettlement in the world after the USA and Canada. More. What is Australia’s current intake under its Refugee and Humanitarian Program? 13,750 annually, to be increased to 20,000, and then possibly to 27,000. More. Now for some questions for you to answer: Should the intake be higher? If so, how much higher? Should there be a cap?
Is there an imperative to stop asylum seekers coming to Australia by small boats?
Does the loss of life at sea (around 1,000 in recent times) make this imperative stronger?
Do you believe most people in this country want to stop these boat arrivals and the drownings?
Is this our problem to solve alone, or is it a regional and global problem?
Is it reasonable to seek a regional solution that involves all nations in our region?
As a measure to dissuade asylum seekers from coming via boats, a recent Government decision is to disallow entry to Australia to boat arrivals that have no visa, and instead send them to PNG for settlement. Do you regard this as ‘cruel’ policy, as do the Greens? If so, why?
Whether or not you believe this policy is cruel, if an asylum seeker, armed with this knowledge, still chooses to arrive by boat, is this resettlement action by the Government cruel?
Put another way, is it ‘cruel’ to send people escaping persecution to PNG, when they knew that would be the case before they embarked on the boat?
Is life in PNG so bad that it is an act of cruelty to send people there?
If you believe so, given that residents of PNG live there themselves, what makes it such a cruel action to ask asylum seekers to live there too?
Why is it that so many objections to the RRA are being advanced, which throw doubt on the viability of catering for thousands of refugees in PNG, when the object of the exercise is to dissuade people from getting on boats in the first place?
Is Australia obliged to take into its own population those who demand to come here by boat, even if those people have been warned not to arrive in that way?
Is it fair to give admission to those who can afford to pay people smugglers for boat passage, while leaving the poor who cannot afford passage to languish for years in camps in transit countries? Is this consistent with Australia’s ‘fair go’ attitude? Is this consistent with the ‘no advantage’ rule now in place?
Are those who can afford to pay people smugglers for boat passage more deserving to come than the others who cannot?
Are those who can afford to pay people smugglers for boat passage more under threat? Do they have a more urgent and impressive ‘well‐founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’, than others who cannot so afford?
Is it understandable that some Australians resent having what they feel is ‘a gun held to their head’ by people smugglers and those who buy their services, who seem to be saying: ‘we are coming whether you like it or not’?
Is it understandable that some Australians dislike seemingly well-off asylum seekers (for example from Iran) flying to transit countries and immediately buying passage to Australia by boat, while others wait for years in awful camps, (for example those from Burma) unable to buy themselves out?
Do you believe that the persecution, or fear of persecution, of Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans and Sri Lankans, for example, is worse that the persecution of Burmese or similar folk from our region?
Is there a case to be made for equity in managing the large number of different groups seeking asylum, a tenet of the current ‘no advantage’ approach?
Do you approve people seeking asylum purely for economic reasons – for a better life in this country?
Recognizing that some people have had to leave their country hurriedly without identification documents, do you find it acceptable that people seeking asylum deliberately destroy their identification documents in order make it difficult for Australian authorities to refuse asylum?
What action should be taken against those who destroy the identification documents?
What should happen to those not found to be genuine refugees? Should they be returned to their home country?
Is it understandable that some Australians resent asylum seekers arriving by boat uninvited, and then using our country’s resources provided at the expense of taxpayers?
Notwithstanding such feelings, do you endorse the Coalition’s rhetoric that we are being ‘invaded’, that our borders are ‘threatened’, and that the current state of arrivals constitutes a ‘national emergency’? If so, what is the threat?
Do you approve the Coalition’s just-announced ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, (now styled OpSoB) as a response to what the Coalition regards as ‘a national emergency’?
Is it also a ‘cruel’ policy?
Given that the Howard government turned around only four boats, do you believe that the Coalition’s policy of ‘turning the boats around, when it is safe to do so’ is operationally feasible and not a threat to the boats, their occupants, and Navy personnel? Does the ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ policy make this more feasible?
Do you believe that Howard government-style Temporary Protection Visas would diminish the flow of asylum seekers by boat?
While waiting for the processing of asylum claims offshore is understandably extremely frustrating, is it acceptable for asylum seekers in offshore processing centres to riot and destroy property?
What action should authorities take against the rioters?
Given that confinement on offshore venues for long periods waiting for processing is mentally taxing, what should be done to diminish the mental trauma? How is it possible to avoid mental disturbances when the ‘no advantage’ rule is being applied to those who came ahead of the many who still wait in camps in transit countries?
Is there any definitive way to avoid mental illness in detention? What more could/should be done to prevent it?
Would a degree of certainty about when asylum claims would finally be processed help, even if distant?
Would meaningful work and satisfying productivity postpone mental problems?
Should commercial endeavours be introduced into detention centres, as exists in prisons?
Should there be sporting, recreational and artistic activities introduced into detention centres?
Do you believe that children should not be sent for offshore processing?
Do you believe that unaccompanied children should not be sent for offshore processing?
What do you feel about asylum seekers deliberating sending unaccompanied children ahead of them on boats, so as to ‘get a foot in the door’ for the family?
If these children were exempted from removal to offshore processing, would that act as an incentive for people smugglers to operate in this way?
Do you approve of Australian citizens who have been granted asylum here, actively collaborating with people smugglers to bring fellow citizens here, as has been alleged recently?
Do you believe that immigration should be orderly, that although there is no hypothetical queue, there ought to be a mechanism for taking asylum seekers according to need and time of waiting?
Is there a case for substantially boosting processing facilities in transit countries and in countries of origin?
Could that reduce the numbers seeking to arrive by people-smugglers’ boats?
Given that the Greens seek a more ‘humanitarian’, less ‘cruel’ approach, and want an increased asylum and humanitarian intake, how do you believe they would like our immigration program to work?
Would the Greens impose any restrictions? If so what might they be?
How many who agree with the approach of the Greens have accommodated refugees in their own homes or in their communities? How has that turned out? The above questions were designed to be neutral, rather than suggesting a particular answer.
If you were able to answer them comprehensively, would the answers assist you to devise a more satisfactory system for managing those seeking asylum in our country?
Do you believe that those who offer opinions about how to manage asylum-seekers ought to have answers to these questions, or have reflected on them?
Frankly, I am weary of reading or listening to pundits who take a myopic approach to the asylum-seeker problem, criticising this aspect or that, which is easy to do, yet who never make a comprehensive analysis of the multiplicity of factors, who never address its enormous complexity, and who thereby never come up with a wide-ranging assessment or a complete plan. The only group to have done this was the Houston Panel. Although they acknowledged the extraordinary complexity of the matter, they were able to develop a far-reaching plan, the so called ‘no advantage’ plan, one that proposed that those who came by boat and thereby short-circuited an orderly process, would not be advantaged over those who ‘waited their turn’. This operates at present.
Tony Abbott still relies on three word slogans as the Coalition’s solution, and now he has another: ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’. Scott Morrison uses verbal emesis to bully his way through interviews, regurgitating the same old words of condemnation of everything Labor has done, and praise for what the Howard government did with its tripartite approach, which he endlessly reminds us can be done again, presumably now via OpSoB. Together, they have condemned and opposed every move Labor has made to ameliorate the problem.
The Coalition’s Operation Sovereign Borders response to this complex matter is confined to a revised command structure that seems to be directed at better coordinating the ‘turn the boats around’ strategy. Where is its critical analysis of the multiple factors? Where is its detailed appraisal of this global problem that might lead to better understanding? All it continues to serve up is just more of the same simplistic approach, as if nothing has changed in the refugee situation in the last decade. ‘Turning the boats around when it is safe to do so’, which they insist can
be done as it was done before, is offered irrespective of what maritime experts say and what the Indonesians think or say. The Coalition posits an ‘invasion’, a dire threat to our borders, a national emergency, and comes up with a military-style response.
The Greens represent the ‘bleeding heart’ elements in society. Sarah Hanson-Young and Christine Milne perpetually urge a more humanitarian approach; they eschew what they label as ‘cruelty’ toward the most vulnerable, those fleeing persecution. They urge a warm-hearted approach, a welcoming pair of arms, a line regarded by their supporters as laudable and praiseworthy, as indeed it is.
But there is never a moderating word, never a concession that not all seeking asylum can be accommodated, never a mention of whether there would need to be a limit, never a suggestion of how the practice of people smuggling might be countered, never a hint of how deaths at sea might realistically be avoided. It is all openhearted charity without apparent limit, without addressing the practical reality of hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking to come here, without tackling the problem of the people smugglers who are making a fortune out of the human misery in which they trade, men who would never willingly surrender their lucrative operations. It is all warmth without a hard-nosed element at all. There is never any comprehensive plan, such as they would be required to present were they in government. Never being in danger of being in power is their haven. Their legal confederates have joined with them by placing legal barriers in the way of moves that Labor has made, specifically the ‘Malaysia solution’, thrown out by the High Court.
For Labor’s part, it has struggled from one ‘solution’ to another. It has been forced by increasing arrivals to retreat from the ‘more humanitarian’ approach introduced by Kevin Rudd in 2008, required to explore regional approaches (East Timor and Malaysia) as the arrivals continued, forced to reintroduce most of the Howard’s strategies, eventually required to resort to an expert (Houston) panel to advise it, until finally Kevin Rudd was propelled to introduce the RRA with PNG. Even this option faces legal challenges and the difficulty of settling non-Melanesians in a Melanesian society.
At every turn Labor has met with resistance and criticism from the Greens, and trenchant opposition and obstruction from the Coalition, for whom it seemed the continuance of boat arrivals was a political plus. I can offer no magic solution. I believe there is none without strong tripartisan support, the ongoing involvement of other nations in our region, and the development and implementation of a regional ‘solution’. Instead, as I did when I addressed this issue in Applying facts and logic in the asylum-seeker issue and again in What is the role of political blog sites?, I challenge those who oppose what Labor has done and is doing, what the Coalition proposes, and what the Greens seem to want, to come up with their own answers.
Any who insist on criticising what others are doing or proposing ought to tell us what THEY would do. I challenge any who attempt to do this, to do so only after answering the questions above, if they can.If you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be sent to the following politicians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Mark Butler, Doug Cameron, Bob Carr, Jason Clare, Mark Dreyfus, Peter Dutton, Joel Fitzgibbon, Josh Frydenberg, Sarah Hanson-Young, Joe Hockey, Mike Kelly, Jenny Macklin, Richard Marles, Christine Milne, Scott Morrison, Judi Moylan, Robert Oakeshott, Brendan O'Connor, Christopher Pyne, Kevin Rudd, Philip Ruddock, Tony Smith, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.