Bob Douglas and Claire Higgins. Beyond Operation Sovereign Borders.

Aug 12, 2014

Recently in The Saturday Paper Max Opray reported on the harrowing story of two 16 year-old Vietnamese asylum seekers, who have been removed from their Adelaide school without warning, and placed in closed detention in Darwin. The boys are among around 30,000 asylum seekers who are currently in Australia awaiting resolution of their protection claims. Many live without work rights, and many fear sudden re-detention or removal. Indeed, the boys’ case has led to fifteen other Adelaide teenagers in a comparable situation to go into hiding, wary of a similar fate.

So why were the boys re-detained? Was it to deter prospective asylum seekers? To encourage those who are already here to withdraw their applications for refugee status? The only explanation for their re-detention was this notice from their official guardian, Scott Morrison: “The Minister for Immigration and Border Protection has made a decision that your residence determination is no longer in the public interest.”

Experts in this field do not believe that the punitive treatment of the 30,000 is a worthwhile deterrence measure. During an all-day Roundtable at Parliament House on July 11, some of Australia’s most experienced policy makers and stakeholders agreed unanimously that inflicting further cruelty on those who are currently on Australian shores will not succeed in deterring the people smuggling enterprise or those who are desperate enough to attempt the journey. So these 30,000 people should be expeditiously, fairly and generously processed, using a range of migration pathways.

Securing this level of agreement at the Roundtable was highly significant, because those present represented a diverse range of viewpoints on this issue. Participants included parliamentarians from the ALP, the Liberal party and the Greens, a former Indonesian ambassador to Australia, a strategist from Malaysia, UNHCR’s former assistant High Commissioner for Protection, former senior immigration and defence officials including former immigration minister Ian Macphee and retired Chief of the Defence Force Adm Chris Barrie, academics and representatives from the churches, refugee advocacy groups  and civil society, including Expert Panel member, Paris Aristotle.

The Roundtable also achieved broad agreement that Australia should raise its humanitarian migration quota to at least 25,000 persons annually and peg it at a fixed percentage of the annual migrant quota. Doing so would not only ameliorate the legacy caseload of around 30,000 people who are now on our shores, but also help to decompress the refugee burdens of our regional partner countries. While these 30,000 are being assessed (and it is recognised that this cannot happen overnight) people in community detention should be able to apply to work and support themselves, and above all must be treated in a humane and dignified manner.

The issue of humane treatment of the 30,000 was a key focus for the Roundtable, and sudden de-detention of the Vietnamese asylum seekers underscores the urgency of this question. The two boys had arrived in Australia by boat in March 2011, and after 17 months of mandatory imprisonment on Christmas Island and in other Australian facilities were eventually moved into community detention in Adelaide. They had settled in and were attending school, only to now be re-detained. Our group of experts recognised that while Australians may be nervous about unauthorised migration and want reassurance that migration intakes will be managed carefully, this does not justify the harsh or unfair treatment of those who are in our care.

Furthermore, Roundtable participants acknowledged that Australia’s current treatment of asylum seekers can have a deleterious impact on human capital, potentially depriving the Australian economy of valuable long-term contributors. Studies have shown that refugees are a young, enthusiastic and entrepreneurial cohort, and that the Australian community will embrace them for it. The case of the two Vietnamese asylum seekers is a perfect example of this: the boys were working hard in year 10 and year 11, playing competition soccer and daring to hope that they could become permanent Australians. Their school community has launched an online petition calling for their return, and the ‘Bring Back Our Boys’ campaign has received international media coverage and more than 11,000 signatures to date.

Roundtable participants agreed that recent policies have debased Australia’s previous excellent reputation as an international citizen and that the current policy response is ignoring the complexity of the ongoing global challenge of forced migration and the need for Australians to better contribute to the protection of a growing number of vulnerable people.

Our group of experts understood that that there is no policy silver bullet solution to this complex issue. The best we can do as responsible members of a world community is to evolve and share with other countries in our region a plan to manage people flows in ways that are respectful to countries like Indonesia and Malaysia and can help to ameliorate their refugee problems as well as ours.

To achieve this, our Roundtable agreed to support the development of two ongoing “track 2 Dialogues”. The first dialogue series would build a new network of influential thinkers and policy makers in key countries in our region, some of which are transit countries for refugees hoping to come to Australia and some of which are countries of origin of people being displaced or threatened. The other “Track 2 Dialogue” on which we are collectively embarked is with the Australian community. Much of this work will require long-term consultation and negotiation. In the short term, however, the answer is simple: the treatment of asylum seekers already within Australia must immediately change for the better, as the lives of 30,000 vulnerable people and the future strength of the Australian community depend on it.

 Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas AO is a Director of Australia21. Dr Claire Higgins is a Research Associate at the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales

An edited version of this post appeared in ‘Inside Story’.


The Roundtable was convened by Australia21, The Centre for Policy Development and The Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW on 11 July 2014. The background discussion paper for the Roundtable, ‘Beyond Operation Sovereign Borders: A Long-Term Asylum Policy for Australia’, can be found at and a full report on the Roundtable will be available later this year.


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