We can be proud of what we have done for refugees in the past but like many others I am ashamed that we have now had a succession of ‘leaders’ who have appealed to our most selfish instincts.
When I feel discouraged about our national failure, I am reminded of Graham Greene’s challenge that ‘the only unforgivable sin is despair’.
A humanitarian policy on refugees has been made difficult by the fear-mongering of the Coalition since John Howard and the determination of the ALP not to be wedged on the issue.
Some ALP members of parliament, such as Ged Kearney have spoken up on the need for a more humanitarian approach. There is now a particular opportunity for the ALP at its National Conference in December to chart a new and acceptable outcome that makes for good policy but is politically tenable.
In addition to our necessary humanitarian responsibility for people in need we also have a particular obligation for the refugee flows that have come out of the Middle East. The humanitarian disaster and the displacement of people in the Middle East has been triggered by the US invasion of Iraq and our illegal complicity in it and the consequences that have flowed in Afghanistan and Syria. Our invasion of other countries is a contributor to refugee flows. And terrorism. We have blood on our hands.
To hide our inhumanity, we are told and some believe that this tough approach on refugees is to ‘stop drowning’s at sea’. It is nothing of the sort. The tough approach is not to save lives. It is for political reasons and the belief that Australians will vote against any government that is soft on people arriving by boat. It is to exploit fear, the the political stock in trade for a succession of Liberal Prime Ministers.
If the government was genuinely concerned about deaths at sea, it would be sending out the Navy to rescue those in distress on the sea. If it was really to save lives, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison would be queuing up for a Nobel Peace prize. But they know that talking about saving drownings at sea is a device to hide their inhuman policies. Please spare us the hypocrisy that we are being tough on refugees to save lives.
Hopefully after the next election ‘the better angels of our nature’ will prevail and we could have a prime minister and a leader of the opposition who could find common ground on politically realistic and decent policies.
An assumption that we all first need to make is that boat arrivals cannot be allowed to restart. Australians have shown that they will support a generous humanitarian program that is orderly, regular and controlled by the Australian government. But they will not tolerate unauthorised boat arrivals.
An orderly process requires that parallel arrivals by boat, with the help of people-smugglers must not resume.
One reason for the success of the Indochina program under Malcolm Fraser was that there were very few boat arrivals. The maximum number of people arriving in Australia by boat in any one year during the Fraser government period was 1,700. By mid-2013 people arriving by boat was approaching 50,000 per year before the Rudd government acted. The role of people smugglers and the number of boat arrivals was on a scale we had not seen before. And it was not Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison who stopped the boats.
On the basis of an orderly program and no ‘irregular arrivals’, I believe that a generous humanitarian program based on the following would be acceptable to most Australians.
- An increase in the annual humanitarian program from 12,500 to 25,000 p.a.
- Negotiate orderly departure arrangements with key countries that have minorities facing persecution and/or discrimination, e.g. Tamils in Sri Lanka, Hazaras in Afghanistan and Rohingya in Myanmar. I would expect that the governments in those countries would welcome the departure of those they regard as troublesome minorities. In 1983, Australia negotiated an Orderly Departure Program with Vietnam. Under that program 100,000 Vietnamese came to Australia in an orderly and government-arranged program which meant that many Vietnamese chose not to take the route of dangerous sea voyages. And they arrived with documentation.
- Develop new migration pathways for people whose status is unclear – whether they are economic migrants or refugees. Presently we have over a million temporary residents in Australia. They include 457 visa holders, students and working holidaymakers. It is possible to establish a new visa category to meet the needs of people who fall in the grey zone of refugees/economic migrants.
- Abolish mandatory detention immediately. Mandatory detention was introduced by the Keating government in 1993. It was designed to deter boat arrivals. It has not achieved this and is very expensive. Few countries have such harsh, expensive and failed deterrent policies.
- A longer-term and essential path for our refugee policies must be to build on the Bali process and establish a framework of cooperation in our region to manage flows of people into, out of and within our region. Together with others, I have been involved with the Centre for Policy Development to build a viable frame work of regional cooperation. We are developing what we call a Track II Dialogue between interested people, officials in their private capacity and others to break the impasse on regional cooperation and build the Bali process into a workable program of burden-sharing in the region. The successful Indochina program would not have been possible without the close cooperation of regional countries and settlement countries like Australia and the US. Every situation is different, but that earlier experience showed clearly that regional cooperation and burden sharing is essential. A new Australian government should actively support the development of a regional framework to manage the flow of displaced people.
- We need to revamp the present refugee Community Support Programme. It is an horrendous expense for NGOs, community groups and churches when the cost is $20,000 per refugee visa. For a family of five it is $100,000. Community supported refugees are bringing vitality to many country towns. Country people are finding as we all find, that when we come face to face with refugees, our outlook and response is much more generous and welcoming. We also know that Canada has been very successful in involving local communities in Canada’s very generous and successful refugee programs. Australia had great success in earlier years in our Community Refugee Settlement Scheme that operated for over twenty years. We have a good track record in community refugee support programs. They must be renewed. A first step must be to dramatically cut the $20,000 per refugee government charge and increase the quota to 5,000 and later 10,000 per annum.
- We must also address the thousands asylum seekers on bridging visas in Australia who are awaiting refugee determination. They are being treated shamefully by the Australian government. Asylum seeker organisations are responding generously but hardships are very real. A new government should immediately address ways, particularly through employment and educational support so that these asylum seekers waiting refugee determination can live in dignity and with the prospect of effective integration into Australia.
- We need to undo the administrative model which links immigration, customs and Border Force. The new arrangements under Peter Dutton are unacceptable. A separate Department of Immigration should be re-established under the name perhaps of Immigration, Settlement and Citizenship. In particular it should have responsibility for the post-arrival settlement programs that were transferred to other departments by the Abbott government in 2013, including the Australian Migrant Education Program. One of the great strengths of the Australian immigration system until recently has been an integrated national administration that brings together entry policy, post-arrival settlement services and citizenship policy.
But the immediate problem is the souls still on Manus and Nauru.After the election the prime minister should put to the leader of the opposition two key proposals. The first is that the remaining people who are being so mistreated in offshore detention on Manus and Nauru should be brought immediately to Australia for processing. There is no alternative and we should stop pretending there is. They should live in our community on bridging visas while their status is determined. Those who are found not to be refugees should be repatriated where possible. The second is that at the same time Operation Sovereign Borders be stepped up to ensure no more boat arrivals. As part of this policy, we should inform and negotiate with Indonesia and Malaysia that for every, say, 10 boat people that we turn back, we will accept 100 refugees from those countries that have been processed in an orderly way. That will be a tough policy for refugee advocates to accept, but I believe it is necessary to help the wounded souls still on Manus and Nauru.
John Menadue was Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs 1980-3