BOB DOUGLAS : Towards a proper policy on asylum seekers

Last month, the Victorian prize for literature and the Victorian Premier’s prize for non-fiction work were awarded to an Iranian refugee, Behrouz Boochani, for his book, “No friend but the mountains: Writing from Manus prison.”  

The author remains on Manus. The book was tapped out on a mobile phone in a series of single messages over time, and translated from Persian into English by his friend Omid Tofighian.

The book makes harrowing reading for those of us who feel we could be working harder for a proper Australian policy and it draws out brilliantly, the disastrous impact of our crimes in keeping people in harsh and inhumane conditions for year after desperate year. The book is winning international plaudits and extracts have apparently been read in the Scottish Parliament. It is an appalling statement of the way Australia treats refugees!

It is now more than four years since a multidisciplinary roundtable of 35 experts, including politicians, advocates and opponents of Australia’s asylum seeker policy, met in Parliament House, Canberra, to consider how Australia could develop an improved policy that would be both humane and compatible with our international obligations.

At the time, there was, as now, agreement by the two major political parties, that Australia is best served by turning back boats and permanently excluding all refugees who arrive illegally by boat through an offshore processing regime based on Manus Island and Nauru.

Nine recommendations emerged from the 2014 roundtable discussion. The specific proposals for change related to: a) the management of boat arrivals, b) the conditions of treatment of people seeking asylum and c) the need for both a new regional and community engagement on the topic of refugees and asylum seekers.

While discussion at the roundtable focused particularly on Australia’s responses to maritime arrivals, there was clear recognition that forced migration is a global issue and that Australia is neither free from its consequences, nor able to be insular in its responses. A telling figure in the report is a comparison of Australia’s 2013 refugee arrival rate per thousand inhabitants (1.48) compared with that for 10 other countries. (Ranging from 12.06 to 177.63.)

The report stated “Fears about maritime arrivals have been politicised and oversimplified and the Australian community has become increasingly divided into those who are for or against refugees. There is no simple solution. A new national conversation needs to be championed by opinion leaders on both sides of politics. It needs to draw on the empirical evidence about the economic, social and cultural contributions that refugees have made to Australia.”

As well as demanding a new national conversation on these matters, the roundtable called for what it described as a “Regional Track 2 Dialogue”. This would involve international organisations, non-government organisations and civil society, refugee and people smuggling experts, academics and think tanks from around the Asia Pacific region, coming together. They would meet with government officials acting in a personal rather than an official capacity, to develop new ideas about refugee policy across the region. This approach, that has been used successfully in other policy areas, would enable participants to lift their gaze and focus on what might be possible over the long term.

The roundtable called for an end to mandatory detention, except for initial health, security and identity screening. It was argued that mandatory detention has little or no deterrent effect on asylum seekers and that it results in severe and long-term trauma, mental illness and physical impairment. Not only is it dangerous to the health of refugees, but it is in breach of article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The conclusions of the 2014 roundtable made little or no impact on public policy thinking at the time, but they warrant serious consideration now. Large groups in the community are voicing their anger that our political leaders got it badly wrong in 2013 and that we must all think again.

The recent debate around the medical evacuation Bill does absolutely no justice to the complexity of this issue. Australians are better than this. Whatever happens at the coming election, we, the electors, must demand of our representatives, a root and branch re-examination of the assumptions and impacts of our current policies. They are bringing Australia into disrepute around the world and profoundly harming hundreds of people who we should be protecting.

Em Prof Bob Douglas is a Director of Australia21. He coedited a volume of 24 essays by notable Australians “Refugees and Asylum Seekers; Finding a Better Way,” published in 2013. He also chaired the 2014 Roundtable discussion and coedited its report. “Beyond the boats: building an asylum seeker policy for the long term.” Both reports can be downloaded from the Australia21 website www.australia21.org.au .

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