MICHAEL LIFFMAN. Asylum seekers: what now?

In the face of the paralysing  – and with the closure of the centre in Manus, accelerating – crisis in Australia’s asylum seeker policy, I propose the revival of an initiative I first suggested ten years ago, but which remains relevant and arguably adds  further moral integrity to the call by Brennan/Costello/Manne/Menadue  for the admission of those still in detention or banned entry to Australia….

With the exception of the responsible ministers and a few commentators, virtually everyone seems to remain profoundly troubled by the arrangements for the detention of asylum seekers and refugees. But whenever anyone points out the tragic human consequences and the damage to Australia’s international reputation of those policies, the Government responds that softening the treatment afforded illegal entrants would encourage people smuggling.

In defending that policy, the Government claims, perhaps not entirely unreasonably, that its harsh practices of detention, non-admission and repatriation of unauthorised or overstayed arrivals to Australia remain necessary to ensure that it retains control of our borders, and of our immigration and refugee policies, and to prevent drownings at sea.

But there is at least one measure  the Government could take immediately, which would help reestablish the ethical bona fides it claims for its policy while softening, at least somewhat, the deeply problematic  consequences  of current policies.

After admitting those legitimate refugees currently banned entry (in accordance with the Brennan proposal) Australia should announce that in future it will increase – by a number equal to or greater than those asylum seekers turned back, repatriated or denied entry – the numbers to be admitted under its established refugee and humanitarian entry quotas.

This might be done by agreeing that for every asylum seeker who, as a result of Australia’s strict border controls, is, after due process, turned back or denied permanent entry, at least one additional person in what the government claims to be the queue of “legitimate” applicants is to be admitted (presumably from those in camps in Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere). This would entail a small, but given the apparent reduction in the number of boat people in recent times, entirely manageable, addition to Australia’s refugee and special humanitarian intake. These additional people would be chosen by the Government and in accordance with the criteria and procedures that it insists are necessary for an orderly and just program. They would not be those seeking unauthorised entry.

Importantly,  by benefitting others  than boat people or those actively seeking  unauthorized  entry, the policy would retain the disincentives to entry by boat, or overstaying after legal entry, that  the government so strongly believes our policy must retain. Instead the beneficiaries of such a decision would be individuals unknown to ‘people smugglers’, and beyond their reach. 

On present figures, over recent years such a decision might have added several thousand extra refugees and humanitarian entrants to the number of those admitted. In the current environment of strict turn back at sea the number would probably be negligible. In no way could this be considered an opening of the floodgates, a loss of border and policy control, or an unacceptable burden on Australia’s absorptive capacity.

While this approach would not ameliorate the hardship imposed on those asylum seekers who were turned back or denied entry,  if implemented in conjunction with measures to ensure the integrity of the assessment process, to avoid refoulement and to bring some humanity back to detention arrangements,  the benefit to others seeking entry might at least be a reluctantly acceptable trade-off.

This policy would go some way to emphasise that Australia’s decisions are not motivated by narrow racial or political considerations. It would also show that Australia is compassionately aware of the pressures facing so many people in other parts of the world and in other countries receiving far greater numbers of asylum seekers, and of its own privileged position. In addition, this decision might, to some degree, offset the distress caused to those who were unable to satisfy the requirements for asylum, by alleviating the suffering of others in similar or even worse circumstances.

Like the proposal for the admission of those currently in detention, many of the positions advocated by the critics of government policy seem beyond controversy – such as the suggestion that children ought not be held at length in remote detention centres. Perhaps a little more challenging is the proposition that those currently detained ought be released into the community pending determination of their claims, although when compared with the ease with which bail is available to Australian citizens charged with relatively serious criminal offences this, too, seems not so daring. In contrast, the assertion that all asylum seekers should, with minimal scrutiny of their case, be granted their claims, is a little naive and unrealistic, and likely to generate community anxieties inimical to a more generous response.

Perhaps a combination of at least some softening of the treatment of asylum seekers already here, with the proposal outlined above, would be acceptable to the pragmatists in Government who insist that their priority is the protection of the ethical basis they claim shapes Australia’s immigration and refugee policies.

Dr Michael Liffman is an adjunct associate professor at Swinburne University.

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John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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