I have not always held the view that asylum seekers who come to Australia could be transferred and processed in another country. I changed my mind on that partly because of the rapid increase in boat arrivals after the Agreement with Malaysia fell over in 2011. The large number of boat arrivals was reducing public support for a generous and humane refugee program.
I came to the view that what was important is that asylum seekers are treated with humanity and that the process is fair and efficient. The issue of where that processing occurs, on shore or offshore is a secondary issue.
For the present we have comprehensively lost the argument of opposition to offshore processing of boat arrivals
I also supported the proposed Malaysian Agreement for two other reasons. First, I saw it as part of an important building block in regional cooperation. Secondly, the UNHCR was prepared to work with us in the proposed arrangement with Malaysia. The UNHCR does not support the transfers to Manus (PNG) and Nauru and the processing in those countries.
Unfortunately the agreement with Malaysia was made impossible by the combined support of the Greens and the Coalition in the Senate to block amendments to the Migration Act. The action of the Coalition and the Greens in the Senate was supported by refugee advocates across Australia. .
The collapse of the Malaysian Agreement was the turning point. We have been on a slippery slide ever since. Boat arrivals quadrupled as a result of the High Court decision and the collapse of the Malaysian Agreement. In the second half of 2013 asylum seekers arriving by boat were running at a rate of over 40,000 per annum. We may wish it otherwise but no Australian Government can keep intact a generous humanitarian refugee program with boat arrivals at over 40.000 pa. At the peak of the Indo China outflow the largest number of people arriving by boat was 1423 people in 1977/78. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Malaysian Agreement it was almost thirty times higher.
My own view is that the Fraser Government could not have sustained our generous acceptance of Indo Chinese refugees if boat arrivals had been anywhere near the rate the Rudd government faced in mid-2013. To think otherwise is kidding ourselves. I was Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs for some of the time involved
The failure of the Malaysian Agreement triggered Manus and Nauru.
The UNHCR has a long history of support for the transfer of asylum seekers in appropriate circumstances. Late last year the UNHCR issued a ‘Guidance Note on Bilateral and Multilateral Transfer Arrangements of Asylum Seekers’. It set out clear conditions, including important issues of non-refoulment and protection of the rights and the safety of asylum seekers in the country to which they were to be transferred.
In the Melbourne Age on 13 December last year, Arja Keski-Nummi and I outlined a system of ‘effective protection’ that should govern any transfers of asylum seekers in our region. We set down several important criteria.
- All countries should commit to the principle of non-refoulment.
- Provide asylum seekers with a legal status and access to work and education.
- Work to help not only displaced people but also host communities.
- Increase our refugee intake from our region.
- Work with partners in the region in association with UNHCR to create an atmosphere of safety and trust.
Clearly few of the conditions have been met in the arrangements with PNG and Nauru. Importantly, the UNHCR will not cooperate in our arrangements with either country.
We need to think again about total opposition to transfers and regional processing. That opposition has led us into a tragic cull de sac
A way to minimize the damage to asylum seekers and our own credibility is to now press for such things as
- Increasing the annual “regular” refugee intake to 25,000 from its present 13,750.
- Negotiate Orderly Departure Agreements with Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. The governments in those countries are likely to welcome the departure of some of their opponents. In 1983 we negotiated an ODA with Vietnam under which 100,000 Vietnamese came to Australia without risky journeys.
- Develop alternate migration pathways e.g. 457 visas for Iranians. There is often a blurred line between refugees and persons fleeing for economic reasons.
- Wind back mandatory detention which is cruel and expensive.It punishes but does not deter as we have seen time and time again. Stopping boat arrivals in recent months is not because of mandatory detention. It is not because of Operation Sovereign Borders. It is because of government policy that no boat arrivals will ever be settled in Australia. That is the deterrent.
- Allow asylum seekers in the community to work
We may indulge ourselves with tears and criticism over what has happened but we need to apply ourselves where improvement is possible to help people in great need. It will require political pragmatism and compromise.