Asylum seekers and refugees – political slogans or humanitarian policies? John Menadue

May 27, 2013

Australia has a proud record in accepting 750,000 refugees since WWII. But the mood has now turned sour. It is so easy for unscrupulous politicians to exploit fear of the foreigner. It is paying off politically. We no longer ‘welcome the stranger’.

The continually repeated slogan ‘stop the boats’ is with us almost every day. One line slogans don’t make up a coherent policy. We need to look at the facts behind the empty slogans.

  •  In 2012 the US had 82 000 asylum claimants. In Germany it was 64 000, in France 55 000, in Sweden 44 000 and in Australia 16 000. In the same year refugee numbers in major receiving countries were Pakistan 1.7m, Iran 890 000, Syria 755 000, Germany 577 000 and Kenya 566 000. In Australia we had 23 000. refugees.
  • Asylum and refugee flows are driven by “push” factors, persecution and war in such countries as Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Syria. Deterrent policies in receiving countries have little effect.
  • Over the last 10 years more than 70% of asylum seekers to Australia have come by air and not by boat. What is important is the total numbers of asylum seekers not their mode of arrival. But all the public debate is about boat arrivals. Perhaps it can appear scarier! We hardly lock up any asylum seekers that come by air. They live in the community and can usually work. They have a success rate in refugee determination of just over 40%.
  • Boat arrivals are locked up and subsequently, and very slowly, released into the community. They have a refugee determination success rate of over 90%, but the government will not allow them to work when released into the community. The Coalition will deny review rights in refugee determination to boat arrivals but not air arrivals.
  • The Coalition has demonised boat arrivals as “illegals”, when they are not, they bring disease, and they carry “wads of cash” and introduce crime into Australia.
  • The Coalition has ‘dog whistled’ that most refugees are Muslims. In fact, in 2010 and 2011 26% and 42% respectively were Muslim. In those same years Christians represented 51% and 34% of refugees accepted into Australia. The number of Christians fleeing the middle-east, particularly from Syria and Egypt, is likely to increase in the years ahead because of persecution and war.  The Middle East, the birth place of Christ is squeezing out its Christian populations.
  • The Coalition has said that it will re-introduce its Pacific Solution.  That ‘solution’ has three elements.
    • Re-open Nauru despite warnings by the Department of Immigration that Nauru would not work asylum seekers had learned very clearly from the Howard years that even if they were sent to Nauru they would, after a delay, finish up in Australia or New Zealand. 97 % of persons on Nauru who were found to be refugees came to Australia and New Zealand. The Government foolishly adopted this Coalition policy.   Since August last year when the Nauru/Manus option and the no-advantage test were adopted, the number of boat arrivals to Australia has increased.  Nauru/Manus is not only cruel. It is not working to deter boat arrivals…
    • The re-introduction of Temporary Protection Visas. The evidence from the Howard years is that despite the introduction of TPVs, boat arrivals increased in the years following their introduction. More people got on boats after TPV’s were introduced with over 6000 coming in 2001 All but 3% of TPV holders obtained refugee status. Further, TPVs which denied family reunion resulted in more women and children coming by boat. That is why when SIEVX was lost at sea in 2001, 82% of the 353 people who drowned were women and children.
    • Turn-backs at sea. Both the Indonesian Government and the Royal Australian Navy have warned against this. In 1979 when a similar policy was proposed, Malcolm Fraser rejected it because it would make Australia a ‘pariah’ in our region. Threatened with turn-backs desperate people are likely to scuttle their vessels. It is also dangerous for RAN personnel. Furthermore, returning boat-people to Indonesia would be returning them to a country which has not signed the Refugee Convention.
    • The Coalition claims that its ‘Pacific Solution’ will work. The evidence is clear that it won’t. It will also be dangerous and cruel.

What should be the key elements of a humanitarian policy?

  • Increase the humanitarian intake to 20,000 p.a. which the Government has announced. The Coalition has declined to do so.
  • Abolish mandatory detention except for processing purposes and to check safety and health. No country in the world has mandatory detention the way we do. It is not working and is ridiculously expensive. Next year the total cost of detention related services and off shore asylum seeker management will be $2.97b. Both the Government and the Coalition agree on mandatory detention. Fortunately the Government is cautiously releasing detained persons into the community on bridging visas whilst their refugee claims are being assessed. The Government seems ashamed even when its policies are on the right track because of fear of a populist backlash.
  • Minimising Nauru/Manus by urgently working with Indonesia and UNHCR to establish a UNHCR processing centre in Indonesia.
  • Re-negotiate with the Malaysian Government in cooperation with the UNHCR for the temporary protection and processing of asylum seekers in Malaysia. UNHCR will cooperate with us on Malaysia but not on Nauru/Manus. The Greens have cooperated with the Coalition to defeat legislation that would allow Malaysia to be an important building block in a regional framework. They continually trash Malaysia which is doing more to assist asylum seekers and refugees than we are
  • A regional framework is what we need most of all and Indonesia and Malaysia are the key countries.
  • Negotiate Orderly Departure Arrangements with Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Pakistan to process asylum seekers in their own countries, many of whom have family in Australia. This provides an alternative to risking their lives at sea. We negotiated an ODA with Vietnam in 1983. Over 100,000 Vietnamese came to Australia under this arrangement. They did not have to risk their lives at sea.

The government has failed in many respects.

  • It has failed to outline and promote a principled and humanitarian case for asylum seekers and refugees. Unfortunately the Government listens to focus groups rather than its own conscience. Malcolm Fraser showed that it could be done with the 150 000 Indo Chinese refugees who were settled in Australia. Another 100 000 came in family reunion. To be fair Malcolm Fraser was lucky to have Gough Whitlam and Bill Hayden as Opposition leaders who both broadly supported the refugee programmes. Julia Gillard is not so lucky. She has Tony Abbott grabbing every opportunity to exploit xenophobia. He is following John Howard who started us down this slippery slope- Tampa, children overboard and Nauru.
  • It succumbed to the nonsense from the opposition in re-opening Nauru/Manus.
  • It has been slow to introduce ODAs and cooperate with Indonesia to establish a processing centre in that country.
  • It has excised the Australian mainland from our migration zone which surely must be a gross breach of the spirit if not the letter of the Refugee Convention. This action not only diminishes Australia physically, it diminishes us morally.
  • Refusing to let asylum seekers on bridging visas in the community the right to work. How can a Labor Government which had at its core the right to work do this to vulnerable people! They will be forced into the grey economy and even crime.

There is a lot that governments can do to improve the plight of asylum seekers and refugee’s situation but we also need to be mature enough as a country to accept that desperate people will not always play by our rules. They will cut corners.  It will always be messy. We need to accept that good policies and our best intentions will not always succeed in stopping irregular flows. We need to grow up.

Generosity does pay off. We have settled 750,000 refugees since WWII. It has not been trouble-free but we can look back with pride what these refugees and particularly their children have contributed to Australia. We acted generously in receiving them and it paid off for us. Immigration, refugees and multiculturalism have been Australia’s great success story. Let’s stop spoiling it as we are doing today.

“And if a stranger dwells with you in your land you shall not mistreat him  … for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt” Leviticus 19, 33/34

This not just a moral injunction. It also in our national interest.

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