So what if current maritime asylum seeker policies are working? I mean that question in the narrow sense of reducing irregular maritime arrivals to a trickle.
The arrival figure of some 339 persons for October 2013 announced by the government represents only 16 per cent of October 2012 arrivals.
Although it is only the figure for a single month, this is a significant change. If arrivals were to level out at this rate, it would represent 4068 arrivals per year, compared to some 25,000 arrivals in 2012 – 13.
It is quite possible that the announcement of long-term resettlement in Papua New Guinea and Nauru (as supposed to temporary stay in those countries pending departure for an unspecified destination – probably Australia) has been decisive in changing the decision to travel on the part of those asylum seekers who have not yet paid their people smuggler. Tighter visa procedures on the part of Indonesia might also be a factor. The overlay of stern language by the incoming Coalition government no doubt adds to the general atmosphere of a restrictive approach. We do not know whether the Australian Government has actually turned any boats around.
However, even on the most optimistic scenarios of reductions in numbers, we are not out of the woods. Australia would still find itself with a huge legacy of people to deal with.
There are some 2000 asylum seekers in PNG and Nauru. Their cases have to be decided and their futures determined. Those found to be refugees and given residence in Papua New Guinea or Nauru will agitate to come to Australia. Some non-refugees will return home voluntarily. It will not be easy to repatriate, against their will, those found not to be refugees to countries such as Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan because of lack of cooperation of those governments.
There are some 33,000 maritime asylum seekers in Australia in the community on bridging visas or in detention, in various stages of processing. It will take years to finally decide their cases, even under foreshadowed truncated procedures. The grant of temporary stay and limited benefits to refugees will be controversial and legally contested. Achieving return to country of origin of those found not to be refugees will be even more difficult than for those in PNG and Nauru.
There remains considerable anguish for the government, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the asylum seekers themselves as these issues are worked through.
Even if the current set of policies achieve the result of slowing arrivals to a trickle, the solution based on PNG and Nauru (which are simply not involved in the flow of maritime arrivals to Australia) and threats of turnarounds is certainly not the optimum way of managing the flow of asylum seekers.
Australia will no doubt face future outflows of asylum seekers from within the region and beyond .A solely deterrent-based approach in partnership with small countries that may not wish to be caught up in our problems again is not a sustainable long-term approach.
It is a pity that another way was not found for governments and UNHCR to take active responsibility for the protection needs of asylum seekers in the region, while cutting people smugglers out of the picture.
One could imagine that it might have been a lot better had Australia managed to work with one or more of the countries through which people actually transit to work out an arrangement to return them there and have their future determined as part of established UNHCR processes in that country. It would have been good if those asylum seekers had the opportunity to live and work in those communities pending having their futures determined. It would have been even better if such arrangements could have been reached with the cooperation and blessing of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
But of course, we did have such an arrangement. It was the Arrangement on Transfer and Resettlement with Malaysia negotiated by the previous government in 2011, before boat arrivals went to unprecedented levels. Australia rejected it. The High Court, with a surprise interpretation of the relevant parts of the Migration Act 1958, decided that the Minister did not have the legal power to make transfers to Malaysia. An odd alliance between refugee advocates, the Greens and the then Coalition Opposition ensured that the simple legislative arrangements needed to make it viable at that time could not happen. It was a truly lost opportunity for a long-term sustainable approach.
The bottom line is that, even if the current downtrend remains, Australia has somehow ended up with a “one-off fix” based on fairly hard deterrent strategies. It may not be usable or sustainable in the future and certainly does not build any long-term partnership with the major states in the region in relation to asylum and protection issues.
Of course, if the October arrivals figure turns out not to be the start of a further downtrend and arrival numbers go up again, existing challenges will be exacerbated and even harsher measures will come on to the table.
Peter Hughes was formerly Deputy Secretary, Department of Immigration and Citizenship.