Asylum policies leading nowhere. Joint blog: John Menadue and Arja Keski-Nummi

Jun 11, 2013

This piece was published in Crikey 11 June 2013.


The destructive and divisive debate about various asylum policies is designed to scare us. The most shameful manifestation of this in the past week has been the alleged “terrorist” in community detention.


A person sought asylum in Australia. He was given an adverse security assessment . He was then held in community detention with his family. He was subject to reporting and monitoring. The authorities knew where he was at all times. Given these facts we were probably safer from him (if indeed he was a danger to the security of Australia) than the mindless violence that seems to happen on our streets with depressing regularity. We should not hide behind an ASIO assessment as a way to whip up community fear and insecurity, and in the process destroy a family.


If we take on trust the policies on refugees and asylum seekers that the main parties are taking into the election campaign it makes for disturbing reading.

Setting aside the hubris and posturing what do they really say they are going to do?


The National and the Liberal Party say they will stop the boats. Further the Liberal party would tighten up the process for determining if a person is a refugee.  The Government, saddled by incumbency and actually having to have a policy would also tighten up the refugee determination process, keep mandatory detention, strengthen regional cooperation and try and stop the boats. .


The reality is there are no magic answers to the question of asylum and why people get onto boats.  There is no one action that will make the “problem” go away, despite what Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard  say.


Here is a quick summary of what the two main parties stand for.


Regional cooperation is the hardest and most important area for action if there are to be any lasting solutions. The only way to avoid the tragedy that has played itself out again off Christmas Island is to have a genuine regional protection framework, where peope do not feel that their only way to safety is taking a dangerous journey by sea.  But this takes time. The ALP platform is pretty quiet, on this. The best clues as to their polices are found in the budget papers. In this they have committed additional funding for the Bali Process, for capacity building and enhanced screening and refugee resettlement. It will take time to work and 100 days will not cut it. The Opposition on the other hand have very little to say in their “weighty” policy document ‘Our Plan; Real Solutions for all Australians’. They will “rebuild relationships with our neighbours damaged by Labor’s mismanagement and failed border security policies” and that the first overseas trip that Tony Abbott makes as Prime Minister will be to Indonesia to renew cooperation against people smugglers. That is not a policy, let alone likely to bring any results.


The real damage, fueled by the Greens and the Opposition, in our regional relations is the way we have continued to insult Indonesia and Malaysia and their treatment of asylum seekers while they continue to host much larger numbers of displaced people than Australia and where their policies are no more harsh than what the Australian government has progressively put in place.


On asylum processing the government announced in the budget that it would commission a comprehensive review of Australia’s refugee determination system to “identify changes to improve the efficacy of the system and to ensure that acceptance outcomes for asylum seeker claims are consistent with our international obligations and with final acceptance rates for comparable cohorts in other countries”. There is no detail as to when or how this review will commence. The language used is ominous implying that somehow the system is broken but not much to back this up. Similarly the opposition makes wild assumptions about asylum seekers’ behaviors and a presumption that they do not need protection. This statement flies in the face of not just the Refugee Convention but also years of testing such assumptions in the courts of Australia. Presumably for the Opposition if they get into government it will be easier to blame the courts for a failure to deliver policies than to acknowledge that what they propose may not be possible to enact in law.

Whatever the public debate has been on asylum seekers there was an encouraging all party agreement on the resettlement of refugees from overseas. The increase of the program to 20,000 with 12,000 for offshore resettlement had been a beacon of hope in an otherwise awful debate. It is regrettable the Opposition has now gone back on its promise to maintain that number and in its platform returns the program to the previous 13750, while reserving 11000 places for the offshore program.

Boats and People Smuggling is what this hysteria has been all about.

On paper the parties are all quite muted on boats. The ALP’s platform merely says we need to ensure we meet our safety of life at sea obligations. We all know what Tony Abbott will do …”a new order to the navy to tackle illegal boat arrivals and turn back the boats, when safe to do so”.

The  Houston Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers however noted that these conditions do not currently exist and more appropriately focused on better regional and national codification of Search and Rescue protocols and the development of operational guidelines. If we truly want to prevent tragedies it is these arrangements and protocols that are much more important than the empty and ultimately unachievable rhetoric of “stop the boats.”

In his rhetoric Tony Abbott proposes three things to stop the boats. None of them will work. He said he would reopen Nauru. The government has done this  but the boats have kept coming. He said he would re introduce Temporary Protection Visas but we know that when the Howard Government did this the number of asylum seekers increased and a large numbers of women and children were drowned. He keeps telling us that he would turn back the boats but both the Indonesian Government and our own RAN have cast doubt on the possibility of such an approach.

On people smuggling both the Government and the Opposition are singing from the same songbook both wanting to toughen the penalties for people smuggling.


This brief stroll through the official party polices tells us that there is not much to differentiate the Government and the Opposition and that irrespective of the outcomes of the elections we will have more of the same. The Opposition has the current luxury of very little policy. They are able to get away with the refrain “stop the boats”.  Incumbency is no advantage for the Government. Indeed it appears to be a disadvantage, as it must justify every policy with the dollars spent and the outcomes reached. They are accountable in a way the Opposition is not.


So, in the pursuit of populist policies, the major parties are pursuing approaches that will take us nowhere.


In any event the number of asylum seekers coming to Australia by both air and sea are very small in world terms.  Our “problem” is overwhelmingly a political one. Tony Abbott keeps appealing to our darker angels of fear and Julia Gillard keeps following his agenda.


Where is the voice for decency amongst our political leaders and parties?


John Menadue, former Secretary of Department of Immigration

Arja Keski-Nummi, former senior refugee policy officer in Department of Immigration

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