Yesterday the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers released its Report containing 22 key recommendations for the Government to implement to “stop the boats” and the deaths that all too frequently accompany the dangerous journeys.
The Panel have touted their recommendations as “hard headed but not hard hearted”, and as a realistic response to the very complicated situation of desperate people using desperate means to find safety in a country that is hell bent on not accepting them.
The first problem with the Panel’s report is its underlying “no advantage” principle which intends to ensure that “no benefit is gained through circumnavigating regular migration arrangements”. The problem with this is that implies that there are hoards of asylum seekers jumping at the chance to pack into overcrowded, leaky boats and set sail on a dangerous journey rife with uncertainty. This grounding principle of the Panel’s report fails to appreciate the diverse, frequently dangerous and almost always indefinite conditions of limbo that asylum seekers find themselves in all over the world.
Who doesn’t want to flee persecution and be welcomed into an orderly queue where you’re handed a numbered ticket and you wait to be called to the first available booth for processing? If it’s that or possible exploitation, arrest, overcrowding, malnutrition and corporal abuse in Malaysia– I’m willing to bet most asylum seekers would be ecstatic about the prospect of waiting in queue. The Refugee Council describes waiting for resettlement by the UNHCR as more like a lottery than a queue, with many refugees having no access to the resettlement system whatsoever, and those that do playing an indefinite waiting game. Amongst the migration experts who didn’t happen to be on the Panel, there is consensus that “conditions in origin countries… tend to be more important than conditions in destination countries… in explaining the movement of refugees,’ and that – I’d suggest – is where attention should be primarily focused. The Panel’s Report is founded on deterrence – a principle that has not only been shown to be ineffective, but is hugely expensive and unethical.
The second recommendation is to increase Australia’s humanitarian program to 20,000 places per annum (which will rise to 27,000 within five years); which includes doubling our refugee intake and is an important (though insufficient) step forward. Less than 1% of the world’s refugees are ever resettled and if every single one of them joined a long queue, the average wait for resettlement would be 135 years. It’s a difficult situation that requires addressing the issues in the countries of origin, improving our processing systems and ultimately more countries need to accept more refugees. We need to live up to our responsibilities as a member of the International community and signatory to the Refugee Convention to do our fair share to promote the safe, humane and efficient processing and settling of asylum seekers and refugees.
Recommendations eight and nine are probably the most disturbing and are already attracting attention for their remarkable similarity to Howard’s Pacific Solution. It is apparently a “matter of urgency” to establish capacity in Nauru and Papua New Guinea to process asylum seekers. Indeed, PM Gillard contacted Naura this morning to extend a formal request to recommence processing in the upcoming months. Nauru saw 1500 asylum seekers pass through it during Howard’s Pacific Solution, many of whom suffered mental trauma due to the conditions they were kept in. Nine died when coerced to return to Afghanistan and the then Head of the Department of Immigration Andrew Metcalfe said the scheme was ineffective and should not be reintroduced. Offshore processing is also incredibly expensive, especially somewhere like Nauru where food and water supplies are insufficient for their own small population of 10,000 let alone an influx of asylum seekers who need to be housed and processed.
The Panel also urges the Government to process asylum seekers offshore in Papua New Guinea, who have already indicated that they will re-open the processing center on Manus Island if the Australian Government requests. The Australian Psychological Society expressed their concern at the Panel’s recommendations, citing a “history of mental health issues resulting from detaining people offshore including suicide attempts, hunger and water strikes, lip-sewing, riots, protests, fires and breakouts”. Constructing policy whilst ignoring the ugly lessons that history provides us, is irresponsible and will only result in more human suffering.
Along the same vein, recommendation ten is a straight out endorsement of the Malaysia Solution which was deemed unconstitutional by the High Court of Australia last year because the safety of the asylum seekers being transferred to Malaysia could not be guaranteed. Malaysia is not signatory to the Refugee Convention and whilst it is within the Government’s power to modify the Migration Act (which the Malaysia Solution was also found to breach in the High Court last year) it must not simply ignore its obligations under International law.
Australia from 2010 – 2011 took just 0.6% of the world’s refugees. As one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the Panel’s recommendations to dump thousands of desperate human beings around the Pacific; seems to me to be the product of a fearful and politically antagonistic environment far more than a genuine attempt to protect the lives of asylum seekers journeying by boat.
Perhaps the “matter of urgency” the Panel refers to so often, should be developing a humane system of onshore processing whilst investing in the development of better processing systems within nearby transit countries to facilitate responsible burden sharing in the region. Australia currently accepts a tiny number of asylum seekers when compared to the rest of the world. We also accept less refugees now than we have historically. If the Gillard Government and Opposition are distressed by the 964 men, women and children who have lost their lives since 2001 seeking asylum in Australia; the solution should not be to shut down our borders and send those same desperate people to countries where their safety and wellbeing cannot be ensured. The solution is to follow the lead of countries like New Zealand, Canada and England and increase pathways of entry, welcome more refugees and implement humane, onshore community processing facilities.