MICHAEL LIFFMAN. Asylum seekers: what now?

In the face of the paralysing  – and with the closure of the centre in Manus, accelerating – crisis in Australia’s asylum seeker policy, I propose the revival of an initiative I first suggested ten years ago, but which remains relevant and arguably adds  further moral integrity to the call by Brennan/Costello/Manne/Menadue  for the admission of those still in detention or banned entry to Australia….

With the exception of the responsible ministers and a few commentators, virtually everyone seems to remain profoundly troubled by the arrangements for the detention of asylum seekers and refugees. But whenever anyone points out the tragic human consequences and the damage to Australia’s international reputation of those policies, the Government responds that softening the treatment afforded illegal entrants would encourage people smuggling.

In defending that policy, the Government claims, perhaps not entirely unreasonably, that its harsh practices of detention, non-admission and repatriation of unauthorised or overstayed arrivals to Australia remain necessary to ensure that it retains control of our borders, and of our immigration and refugee policies, and to prevent drownings at sea.

But there is at least one measure  the Government could take immediately, which would help reestablish the ethical bona fides it claims for its policy while softening, at least somewhat, the deeply problematic  consequences  of current policies.

After admitting those legitimate refugees currently banned entry (in accordance with the Brennan proposal) Australia should announce that in future it will increase – by a number equal to or greater than those asylum seekers turned back, repatriated or denied entry – the numbers to be admitted under its established refugee and humanitarian entry quotas.

This might be done by agreeing that for every asylum seeker who, as a result of Australia’s strict border controls, is, after due process, turned back or denied permanent entry, at least one additional person in what the government claims to be the queue of “legitimate” applicants is to be admitted (presumably from those in camps in Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere). This would entail a small, but given the apparent reduction in the number of boat people in recent times, entirely manageable, addition to Australia’s refugee and special humanitarian intake. These additional people would be chosen by the Government and in accordance with the criteria and procedures that it insists are necessary for an orderly and just program. They would not be those seeking unauthorised entry.

Importantly,  by benefitting others  than boat people or those actively seeking  unauthorized  entry, the policy would retain the disincentives to entry by boat, or overstaying after legal entry, that  the government so strongly believes our policy must retain. Instead the beneficiaries of such a decision would be individuals unknown to ‘people smugglers’, and beyond their reach. 

On present figures, over recent years such a decision might have added several thousand extra refugees and humanitarian entrants to the number of those admitted. In the current environment of strict turn back at sea the number would probably be negligible. In no way could this be considered an opening of the floodgates, a loss of border and policy control, or an unacceptable burden on Australia’s absorptive capacity.

While this approach would not ameliorate the hardship imposed on those asylum seekers who were turned back or denied entry,  if implemented in conjunction with measures to ensure the integrity of the assessment process, to avoid refoulement and to bring some humanity back to detention arrangements,  the benefit to others seeking entry might at least be a reluctantly acceptable trade-off.

This policy would go some way to emphasise that Australia’s decisions are not motivated by narrow racial or political considerations. It would also show that Australia is compassionately aware of the pressures facing so many people in other parts of the world and in other countries receiving far greater numbers of asylum seekers, and of its own privileged position. In addition, this decision might, to some degree, offset the distress caused to those who were unable to satisfy the requirements for asylum, by alleviating the suffering of others in similar or even worse circumstances.

Like the proposal for the admission of those currently in detention, many of the positions advocated by the critics of government policy seem beyond controversy – such as the suggestion that children ought not be held at length in remote detention centres. Perhaps a little more challenging is the proposition that those currently detained ought be released into the community pending determination of their claims, although when compared with the ease with which bail is available to Australian citizens charged with relatively serious criminal offences this, too, seems not so daring. In contrast, the assertion that all asylum seekers should, with minimal scrutiny of their case, be granted their claims, is a little naive and unrealistic, and likely to generate community anxieties inimical to a more generous response.

Perhaps a combination of at least some softening of the treatment of asylum seekers already here, with the proposal outlined above, would be acceptable to the pragmatists in Government who insist that their priority is the protection of the ethical basis they claim shapes Australia’s immigration and refugee policies.

Dr Michael Liffman is an adjunct associate professor at Swinburne University.

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6 Responses to MICHAEL LIFFMAN. Asylum seekers: what now?

  1. Kevin Bain says:

    Dr Liffman proposes that the govt increase the annual refugee quotas by a number linked to those refused entry or denied asylum. The official advice for boat turnbacks is 31 boats and 771 people over the three years up to Aug 2017. I expect the additional numbers for air passengers denied entry would be very small; I don’t know what repatriation numbers are, or if they are published. But the annual number would likely be ‘negligible’ as he admits and not a convincing signal of Australia’s “compassionate awareness.”

    The Brennan Manne etc. position is that the naval blockade is effective now, and the Sov Borders chief says it will continue to be so. So the proposal would allow the govt to sell their bona fides to the waverers in their political base with advocate’s endorsement, without doing anything much for refugees.

    We are at a critical peak, so using historical numbers is a false comparator at a time when the global and regional position demands a larger awareness, as former UNHCR official Erika Feller and others have been repeatedly saying. The current groundswell provides a great opportunity for community development. Rather than accommodating bad leaders with minimal requests, somehow we need to demonstrate the wide gap between the humane instincts of the population and the nastiness of the govt to drag them back to a sense of decency even if only for their self-interest. Pleas to rescue Australia’s image are unlikely to interest the govt, currently basking in the glow of admiration by the European anti-migrant forces.

    Regarding the penultimate paragraph, my understanding is the great majority of asylum seekers in Australia are on bridging visas awaiting a status determination, are not in closed detention, and without a demonstrated anxiety about them being housed in the community. On the minimal scrutiny issue, it is open to have a general status determination, and I think it has been done before (Timorese, Chinese students during Hawke period, Kossovars?). Currently the Rohingya cohort seems a clear case for blanket asylum approval on efficiency grounds.

    • Michael Liffman says:

      Thanks Kevin

      Yes, to clarify, my suggestion was not directed at the size or shape of our overall refugee policy, which I agree should be more generous.

      It is a limited proposal that simply seeks to offset somewhat the harshness of the turn back policy without thereby creating an incentive to further unauthorised entrants.

      • Kevin Bain says:

        Hi Michael. Another aspect no-one mentioned is that it is very similar to an unfair John Howard policy though in reverse gear. In 1996 Howard introduced a 1 for 1 tradeoff between onshore boat arrivals and family reunion visas, I think within the Special Humanitarian class (I can’t check precise details at present as on the move.) It was certainly effective in bringing many migrant Australians to oppose boat ppl and this intent was disclosed in his autobiography. There is no need for such a linkage and to extend it for this purpose entrenches and validates it.

        The incentive issue is discussed in the Indonesian context by Antje Missbach in Troubled Transit. There may be “enabling/disabling” aspects but it seems likely from her fieldwork that a structured proposal like yours is beyond the ken of the Indo parties and too weak to have much influence.

  2. Julian says:

    Professor Liffman I’m not sure that I understand how your suggested alternative will work. Presently there is no indication (as you advocate) that “…those legitimate refugees currently banned entry (in accordance with the Brennan proposal)…” will in fact be admitted to Australia. Minister Dutton’s recent “slap-down” of Mr. Shorten and Mr Turnbull’s subsequent refusal to accept the latest offer from the N.Z. Prime Minister indicates nothing has changed, nor is likely to for the immediate future – leaving aside possible U.S. transfer.

    As to any proposed announcement by the government – along the lines of your suggestions, even if this were wholly taken up, its seems to me that its success would largely depend upon adequate scrutiny. For this to happen there would need to be information available at some stage about the numbers involved in: (1) turn-backs, (2) those repatriated, and (3) those otherwise denied entry, otherwise how would you know what was happening?

    As a member of the general public I do not have access to the figures in any of the above three categories, and I suspect such information would not be available to me upon inquiry. Given the tendency of governments to engage in denial and obfuscation, I think that in the present circumstances only a fair-minded government would consider your suggestions.

  3. Kevin Bain says:

    In 2015 the govt increased the Humanitarian quota by 5 000 to 18 750 per year from 2018/19 plus a one-off approx. 12,000 Syrians after a backflip by Abbott due to community and Canberra pressure. The Indonesian centres are now a dead-end due to our no-transfer policy and have swelled to around 13 000. A further special increase should be the start of a genuine response on this occasion also, and as in 2015 community leaders could use their position to talk it up.

    Even a partial US solution is not likely for Manus because a press report says Australia is promoting Nauru refugees as the next group to go to the US http://www.smh.com.au/comment/what-do-refugee-advocates-hope-to-achieve-on-manus-20171103-gzeeiu.html

  4. tasi timor says:

    John and friends

    Dutton states that should Australia or NZ take men from Manus the people smugglers will restart operations. Dutton thus implies :

    1.The Indonesian State is so weak, incompetent and corrupt from bottom to top and the smugglers such an mighty overpowering and protected force they simply can’t be prevented.

    2. Alternatively, the Indonesian State continues to use smugglers as a geopolitical tool and the Turnbull Govt has failed to repair the relationship with Widodo.

    And neither the Opposition nor media challenges Dutton to explain how this could be. The Govt’s propaganda narrative reigns and has become a National Myth. After all these years not a single media commentator understands what really happened, how and why, and the public continues to be lied to.

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