Election aftermath – where to now on asylum seekers and refugees? John Menadue

Dec 18, 2013

Yesterday Sir William Deane launched a book ‘Refugees and asylum seekers – a better way’. A link to the book can be found at


The book includes a chapter I wrote ‘Election aftermath – where to now on asylum seekers and refugees’. This chapter follows

Election aftermath- where to now on asylum seekers and refugees?

Since Tampa in 2001 asylum-seekers and refugees have become a divisive public issue. In that debate, boat arrivals have been the most contentious issue of all.

Just before the September election the Rudd Government announced that no asylum seeker coming to Australia by boat would ever receive refugee status and permanent residence in Australia, but would be transferred to PNG or Nauru. This hard-line policy with some additional punitive measures in Operation Sovereign Borders has been adopted by the Abbott Government.

The number of asylum seekers coming by boat fell dramatically in the last weeks of the Rudd Government. That trend has continued. The net result is that the gate has been very nearly closed for boat arrivals for the foreseeable future. But it will never be shut completely.

Asylum seekers will continue to come by air. Presently about 7,000 to 8,000 asylum seekers come to Australia by air each year. Invariably they state their intention to come as a student, visitor or working holiday maker. They then get issued with a visa, enter Australia and apply for refugee status. Desperate people do desperate things. The chief source country for air arrivals is China and with about 40% of all air arrivals gaining refugee status. This situation is likely to continue. The toxic political debate is only about the mode of arrival. Arriving by aeroplane is OK but not by boat! What a lot of nonsense this is. We are obsessed only by boats.

But as the gate for asylum seekers coming by boat closes more will seek to come by air.

Against this unfortunate background where should we now try to focus the debate? Can we find some ground where effective and humanitarian policies can still be pursued? How can we blunt the edges of cruel policies?

Despite the setbacks of recent years, I still think that there is quite a lot that we can try and do, as difficult as it will be in the present political climate.

We must change the political narrative with a positive message about persons facing persecution and their contribution to Australia rather than the demonization and fear that has been engendered since John Howard’s days. It comes down to leadership across our community and not just politicians. Polls suggest that boat arrivals do not rate highly against such issues as health and education but it is a hot button issue on its own that produces a very strong and hostile response. It is so easy for unscrupulous politicians and some media people to engender fear of the outsider, the foreigner and the person who is different.  History is littered with such unscrupulous people. We must keep trying to change the debate and appeal to Australians more generous instincts that we all know are there.

The dialogue between the Government, including the Department of Immigration and refugee advocates has been broken for a long time. We need a “second-track dialogue” – involving government officials, civil society, NGOs and refugee advocates in the dialogue process. A more constructive role by refugee advocates is essential and with a government prepared to listen.

Progressively we should increase the refugee and humanitarian intake. If we took the same number of refugees today that we took during the Indo Chinese program of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s adjusted for our population increase since then we would now have an intake of about 35,000.  The Gillard Government increased the intake to 20,000 pa but the Abbott Government plans to reduce it to 13,750.  Having been frightened over border security Australians may now feel more secure with the new government in charge! As a result they may now be more supportive of refugees that have been processed in a more orderly way offshore, particularly by the UNHCR.

Reluctantly, I have come to the view that the blanket opposition to offshore processing of asylum seekers has politically failed and with dire consequences for asylum seekers. A couple of years ago I welcomed with some reservations the agreement with Malaysia on transfers and processing. Unlike the Rudd Government’s agreement with PNG, the agreement with Malaysia was supported by UNHCR. On the contentious issue of offshore processing, the UNHCR in May this year issued a ‘Guidance Note’ on bilateral and/or multilateral arrangements on the transfer of asylum seekers. It emphasised that in any arrangement there must be effective protection. This encompasses (a) people given a legal status while they are in a transit country, (b) the principle of non-refoulement (c) people have access to refugee determination processes either within the legal jurisdiction of the state or by UNHCR and (d) treated with dignity. What is important is not where the processing occurs, but whether it is fair, humane and efficient and consistent with the Refugee Convention.

The Malaysian Agreement was opposed by the Coalition, the Greens and almost all refugee advocate groups. It was an odd alliance! The failure of this agreement saw a threefold increase in boat arrivals within a few months. These arrivals rose to 14,000 in the six months to June 2013. The result of that large increase and with an election looming was the draconian agreement with PNG.

In opposing the Malaysian Agreement many refugee advocates sided with Tony Abbott on “canings” in Malaysia. It was quite novel to see Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison defending the human rights of asylum seekers. Tony Abbott gave the impression that he was not interested in stopping the boats but stopping the Government stopping the boats. This was consistent with what a “key Liberal strategist” told the US Embassy in November 2009  that the boats  issue was “fantastic” for the Coalition  and “ the more boats that come the better”( SMH 10 December 2010).

The agreement with Malaysia was also criticised because of the treatment of children. But children could never have been excluded from the arrangement or the boats would have filled up with children. They are called “anchors” to haul in the rest of the family. Children do need protection through a guardian arrangement but the Minister cannot be both gaoler and guardian.

We should also pursue alternative migration pathways to discourage asylum seekers taking dangerous boat or other “irregular” Journeys.

The first alternate pathway is through orderly departure arrangements with “source countries” such as we had with Vietnam from 1983. Over 100,000 Vietnamese came to Australia under this arrangement. We must pursue ODA’s with Sri Lanka, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In both Iraq and Afghanistan we will have to bear particular responsibilities for our involvement in the wars in those countries just as we did after the Vietnam War. An orderly departure arrangement with Pakistan would probably have to be managed by UNHCR.  Importantly DIAC must anticipate future refugee flows.eg Syria and Egypt. I just cannot understand why the previous government did not actively pursue ODA’s.

Secondly we should consider permanent or temporary migration in particular situations. e.g. Iranians on 457 visas. Recent Iranian boat arrivals are mainly single males, well-educated and resourceful. With a population explosion in Iran and the sanctions biting hard many want to leave. In the last 12 months the proportion of boat arrivals from Iran has doubled from 16% to 33%.Iranians are by far the largest national group in immigration detention in Australia. We need alternative pathways to address the special needs of nationals like the Iranians.

Many asylum seekers in the community on bridging visas are not allowed to work. This is absurd. Work rights for all such visa holders are essential for reasons of human dignity and taxpayer cost. We should also review the ad hoc and confusing support arrangements for all asylum seekers living in the community.

We should progressively abolish mandatory detention. At the end of August this year there were over 11,000 people in immigration detention. 96% were asylum seekers. At that time there were 1700 children in immigration detention of some form. It is all cruel and expensive. There is no evidence that it deters but politicians believe that it makes them look tough. If we should have learned anything from successive governments it is that punitive policies in immigration detention centres will result in riots, burnings, suicides and other self-harm. We will bear the human, social and financial costs of mandatory detention for decades

Despite the heavy handed crackdown on boat arrivals there are still some important areas that we could address to help asylum seekers and refugees in their desperate plight. We have a duty to do what we can despite the toxic political environment.

But we cannot manage these problems on our own.  Regional cooperation is essential, not to shift the burden but to share it. That is why we need to work particularly with both Indonesia and Malaysia in cooperation with UNHCR in the processing and then the resettlement of refugees. Those arrangements will problem not be” legally binding”. They will depend on trust.

But whatever we do there is no “solution”.  Refugee flows will always be messy. Desperate people will try and cut corners. They will not play according to our rules. But we can do a lot better as we have shown in the past by successfully settling 750,000 refugees in Australia since 1945.

John Menadue is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. He was Secretary Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs 1980-3. He was also Secretary, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet under Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser, Ambassador to Japan and CEO of Qantas.



Only a few days ago, Tony Abbott released a pamphlet on the government’s achievements since the election. The first subject mentioned was ‘Stop the boats’. At this very time, the UNHCR was been drawing attention to the growing refugee crisis around the world and particularly the outflow of 4 million people from Syria. Yet Tony Abbott took pride in the fact that 33,000 refugees already living in Australia will ‘all be denied permanent residence’.


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