Asylum seeker debate in 2012

August 16, 2012

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:

Over a longer term, Australia should:

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.


Comments

Read previous post:
Plain packaging just a bump for Big Tobacco

Another remarkable achievement can be added to the many of this Commonwealth Labor Government: the successful introduction of plain packaging...

Close