In response to Bernard Keane’s article in Crikey yesterday.

In response to Bernard Keane’s article in Crikey yesterday.

In response to this article Bernard Keane, I want to address his fourth point which suggests that the Government’s “solution” to asylum seekers dying at sea is the only way to save lives.

He says: The fourth is that this is somehow inhumane. The Houston report bluntly addresses this. The entire point is to reduce the risk of asylum seekers spending longer at sea, and maximising the chances of dying, by trying to reach the mainland in an effort to avoid being sent to Nauru or PNG.…

The logic of the Houston report is to stop maritime arrivals, because people die trying to reach Australia by boat.

Response: All the evidence indicates the Houston report will not produce its desired outcomes. It flies in the face of evidence that suggests that “push” factors are far stronger than “pull” factors and is based on the “no advantage” principle which is rarely applicable to the real experience of maritime arrivals. Further, it justifies breaches of basic human rights on the fallacy that there are no working alternatives.

Pull vs Push factors and the “No Advantage” Principle

The Houssen report works with the notion that if you “disincentivise” coming to Australia by boat then less people will come. Excising Australia’s mainland border from the migration zone, processing asylum seekers offshore on Nauru and PNG, not reinstating temporary protection visas etc. are all attempts to reduce the number of perceived “pull factors” that might make asylum seekers pick Australia over other regions in the world.

The problem with this theory, asides from – I would argue – fundamentally misunderstanding the sort of decision making process that occurs when one is risking their life to flee persecution; is that the statistics completely contradict this model.

Possum Comitatus on Crikey does a great comparison between the maritime arrivals who travel to New Zealand and those who make it to Australia. Given the same regional characteristics and similar domestic “perks” (i.e. no political persecution of minorities, well funded health and education systems etc.) and their vastly different policies on maritime arrivals they make for an interesting study.

If the “pull” factor theory is correct, New Zealand’s number of maritime arrivals should have sky rocketed and Australia’s plummeted in 2001 when Howard’s Pacific Solution was first implemented. Whilst Australia was all about indefinite mandatory detention, no temporary protection visas and sending the boats back; our banana shaped neighbor was practically paradise – completely free of mandatory detention and touting an excellent human rights record.

It didn’t. Evidently. Global fluxes in numbers of asylum seekers was a far greater indicator of when and where asylum seekers would seek refuge than anything else. What the Pacific Solution did is essentially what Gillard’s latest move is aspiring to do – redefining what is and isn’t “Australia” to “reduce” the number of people seeking asylum via boat. The reason why “reduce” is in inverted commas, is because the boats will still come. We’ve simply changed the definition of what constitutes Australia so that we can wipe our hands clean of the basic human rights obligations we would owe them had they previously reached Australian mainland. It’s not a strategy that is going to save lives

If asylum seekers travelling via boat make it as this part of the world, Australia and New Zealand are the only two signatories to the Refugee Convention in the region. Asylum seekers are not sitting in their dingys flipping coins and writing lists of pros and cons determining which destination will be their next stop. That’s the sort of thought process a “pull” argument entails.

Instead, the “push” factors operate far more strongly. The “push” factors are things like: how quickly an individual has to leave their home country, what modes of transport are available to allow them to leave undetected if need be, do they have access to their papers or identification documents and is there any possibility of obtaining them, do they have family members who are in immanent danger that must also leave, is the situation at home in a process of escalating etc. The push factors mandate when and how people leave their homes. Australian domestic policy does not.

Another way. Are there alternatives?

Having established that deterrent policies do not work, is there another option?

Australia is the exception rather than the norm when it comes to indefinite, mandatory detention. To some degree, detention is a simple response to a lack of capacity to process administrative claims instantaneously. It’s a practical measure to deal with delays in the system. However, countries such as New Zealand, Venezuela, Japan, Switzerland, Lithuania, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Germany and Canada all utilize less oppressive methods to process asylum seekers – and all do so with a very low absconding rate. Here, detention has becomes systematic and it is characterized by its indefinite term. Not only does this lead to huge mental health problems for detainees, but it allows asylum seekers (especially those who arrive by boat) to always be available as political collateral.

The “problem” the Houssen Report claims to deal with, is deaths at sea because of maritime arrivals. A more logically consistent way of dealing with this, rather than simply altering what we call “Australia”, would be 1) Increase our humanitarian intake (reducing the problem where it starts) 2) Improve regional capacity to efficiently and humanely process asylum seekers 3) Create a sustainable onshore processing scheme and stop intercepting the boats.

It’s really, really important for the Government and the Australian public to let go the idea that the boats are going to stop coming. As long as there are wars and persecution and inequality, there will be asylum seekers. As long as countries like Australia render it virtually impossible to get INTO Australia via plane or other means in order to have one’s refugee status claim processed, they will attempt to come by any other means available. Including putting their lives and their families’ lives at risk.

Step One: Increase our Humanitarian intake

The one good thing about the Houssen Report was its acknowledgement that we need to increase our humanitarian intake  It recommended that Australia increase it’s humanitarian intake to 20,000 places per annum (which will rise to 27,000 within five years). Whilst a step forward, this is insufficient.

For the last ten years Australia’s annual intake of refugees has been limited to 13,500. To put this in perspective, Australia ranks number 47 in the global charts of resettling refugees. The burden is largely born by developing countries with Pakistan (1,740,711), Iran (1,070,488), Syria (1,054,466), Germany (593,799), Jordan (450,756) taking out the top five. Despite our affluence Australia resettles only 0.2% of the global refugee population. By increasing our humanitarian intake we do two things:

  1. We help mitigate the problem where it arises. The fewer asylum seekers left to languish in refugee camps before resettlement, the fewer need to get on boats in a desperate attempt to find somewhere safe and secure to live. (Note: obviously, many asylum seekers do not go via refugee camps in their journey to Australia, it is just one of many ways in which the refugee journey can play out)
  2. We alleviate the pressure on Malaysia and Indonesia (where many of Australia’s irregular maritime arrivals come from) and open up the possibility of a cooperative solution that, ideally, involves improving the conditions and processes in those two transit countries.

Step Two: Create a regional solution that involves improving conditions in transit countries

If Australia genuinely wants to stop people dying at sea, it needs to be part of a solution that improves the conditions in transit countries like Malaysia and Indonesia where asylum seekers frequently flee. Human rights abuses in both countries have been widely documented. There is a huge body of research into the conditions which asylum seekers face upon arrival – widespread caning, unhygienic living conditions, frequent police persecution and interference and laws prohibiting asylum seekers working or attending school.  Improving these conditions in conjunction with building our own (onshore) capacity to process and resettle asylum seekers will decrease the number of asylum seekers that are forced to take the dangerous journey from transit countries to Australia.

Step Three: Make it easier, not harder, to get onshore Australia

The way we currently attempt to “deter” asylum seekers (indefinitely detain in oppressive conditions, offshore) costs an enormous amount of money, leads to long term mental health and integration problems – and doesn’t work. If the Government is serious about reducing deaths at sea, it needs to modify its policies to create safer pathways into Australia not the other way around.

One clear example of how this can happen is to scrap the policy of confiscating boats carrying asylum seekers upon arrival. This policy only fuels the motivation of those transporting others, to take the journey on unseaworthy, overcrowded boats to minimize the cost of each trip.

Ultimately, the problem of asylum seekers coming via boat – or in fact any available means – is not about to vanish. In fact, with the impacts climate change being felt more and more acutely it is probably only going to get worse and Australia will have to work out how it is going to deal with an influx of refugees from surrounding low lying nation states.

There is no single right way. What there is though, is several very clear wrong ways that are logically inconsistent and completely fail the balancing test of border control and humanity. And don’t work.

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