Asylum seeker debate in 2012

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At my first meeting with Department officials as Minister for Immigration, I asked who was detained at the immigration detention centre on Nauru and at what stage were their claims for asylum.

I was told there were eight Burmese and 81 Sri Lankans there. Virtually all of this group had already been assessed as refugees but had been left languishing on Nauru.

When I asked why the eight Burmese had not been settled in Australia in accordance with international law there was an embarrassed silence.

Eventually the answer emerged. The Howard government had ordered they stay put. They had been left rotting on Nauru because the Howard government wanted to maintain the myth that third-country settlement was possible.

Sadly, Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers had sunk this low.

… Labor rejects the notion that dehumanising and punishing unauthorised arrivals with long-term detention is an effective or civilised response. Desperate people are not deterred by the threat of harsh detention – they are often fleeing much worse circumstances. The Howard government’s punitive policies did much damage to those individuals detained and brought great shame on Australia.

Chris Bowen, Immigration Minister, New Directions in Detention – Restoring Integrity to Australia’s Immigration System, ANU, 2008

Labor was elected on a platform of change.  In the area of refugee policy the key themes running through the Labor platform are humanity, fairness, integrity and public confidence.

Labor committed to abolishing the Pacific Solution and this was one the first things the Rudd Labor Government did on taking office.  It was also one of my greatest pleasures in politics.  Neither humane nor fair, the Pacific Solution was also ineffective and wasteful.

At massive cost to the Australian taxpayer – I am advised that the Department of Immigration and Citizenship expended $309.8 million between September 2001 and 29 February 2008 to run the Nauru and Manus Offshore Processing Centres (OPCs) – the Howard government sought to outsource our international protection obligations to less developed countries when we should have been shouldering them ourselves.

… Underpinning the Labor Government’s changes is the rejection of the notion that dehumanising and punishing unauthorised arrivals with long-term detention is an effective or civilised policy response.  Desperate people are not deterred by the threat of harsh detention – they are often fleeing much worse circumstances.

I think this illustrates a fundamental difference between this government and the last.  We firmly believe that we can have strong and effective border security while also treat people seeking our protection with fairness and humanity.

Chris Bowen, Immigration Minister, Refugee Policy Under The Rudd Government – The First Year, Address to the Refugee Council of Australia, 2008.

The appalling debate over asylum seeker policy is happening to appease racist scare-mongers in the Liberal Party, and their conservative media cheer-squad. It is a sad indictment that the once humane, principled and forward-looking Labor government has ceased to be able to argue its case, as it did in 2008.

If our politicians wanted to “save lives” — this is the argument used by the likes of Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison — then they would immediately:

  • Substantially increase Australia’s refugee and humanitarian intake, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia. Australia’s annual intake should be increased to 25,000.
  • Increase funding to the UNHC and similar bodies in our region, especially in Indonesia, PNG, Malaysia and other transit countries.
  • Immediately regularise Australia’s relationship with Indonesia regarding search and rescue. Currently, each time a distress call is made from Indonesian waters, our navy must secure permission from Indonesian authorities. This is unworkable when distress calls are made at night time when there are no available authorities in Indonesia to contact.

Over a longer term, Australia should:

  • Increase funding to refugee agencies in our region (e.g. Indonesia and Malaysia) with a goal to improving the legal rights of refugees in those countries. Australia must do this cooperatively.
  • Create an alternative to expensive, inhumane mandatory detention (forced imprisonment), ideally a form of community processing. It costs the Australian Government $850 per night to house someone in an isolated prison camp/detention centre. Community processing would be around a quarter of the cost.
  • Examine the contribution Australia has made to the causes of people seeking asylum, including our participation in the legally questionable invasion of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. An independent Royal Commission or judicial inquiry (along the lines of what happened in the UK and USA) would be a good start. This would also help Australians understand our obligations to the people who were forced to flee as a result of our military activities.

Additionally, it would be helpful if Labor did not acknowledge or legitimise the lie that the Howard Government Pacific Solution was a solution to anything. In fact, the Pacific Solution was a statistical sleight of hand, allowing Howard to claim that boats “stopped coming” when in fact, they were simply diverted to Nauru.

Does anyone thing that Abbott and the Liberal Party (and their conservative media cheer-squad) would not count boats arriving at Nauru under Labor as “Labor not stopping the boats”.

Labor has tried to “get tough” on asylum seekers since Julia Gillard became Prime Minister. As a political strategy on this issue, it is an abject failure and should be abandoned for a humane, ethical approach.

As Chris Bowen said, the Pacific Solution, mandatory detention and all the other horrible things that conservatives want to inflict on asylum seekers are ineffective because those desperate people are fleeing much worse.

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