Asylum Seeker policy: compromise has finally led to decencyFeb 15, 2023
Six years ago, John Menadue, Robert Manne, Tim Costello and I agreed that Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker policy was in a complete mess. The trouble started with the 2013 election campaign when Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott tried to outdo each other, pledging that the boats would be stopped and that anyone headed for Australia without a visa would never be permitted to settle here.
Once the ring of steel was erected with boats being deterred from setting out from Indonesia or Sri Lanka, or being stopped or turned back, we thought there was little point in trying to have the Coalition or Labor abandon the commitment to keeping the boats stopped. We conceded that those setting sail from Indonesia were most unlikely to be refugees suffering persecution in Indonesia but were asylum seekers understandably seeking a more benign migration outcome. We also conceded that those suffering persecution in Sri Lanka could seek asylum more readily in Tamil Nadu. These concessions understandably upset some refugee advocates.
Having made these concessions, we argued that with the boats stopped, there was no reason to maintain punitive measures against the tens of thousands who had made it to Australian territorial waters by boat. Those proven to be refugees should be offered permanent resettlement in an appropriate third country or permanent residence in Australia. They should also be given the right to family reunion and the usual suite of benefits available to persons lawfully residing in Australia.
We made one additional concession to government authorities. We conceded that government could maintain an offshore processing regime in case of any unexpected influx of boats. But we were insistent that detention of asylum seekers, whether offshore or onshore, should be only for the purposes of identification, health, and security.
We then argued that there should be a moral dividend for the stopping of the boats, including an increased commitment to refugees and humanitarian cases in the annual migration program.
On 14 February six years ago, we wrote: ‘Given that the boats have stopped and will stay stopped, there is no need for continued warehousing on Nauru and Manus Island, nor for ongoing punitive measures for the 30,000 asylum seekers living in the Australian community, still awaiting processing. Those proven refugees on Nauru and Manus Island who cannot be resettled in the USA in the near future, or any other appropriate country, should be resettled in Australia, and the 30,000 in limbo in Australia should be processed and granted permanent residence if proved to be refugees. But this will be possible only if groups like the Refugee Council and the coalition of community groups can reach agreement with Messrs Turnbull and Shorten that the time for political point scoring and purist disengagement has past.’
We upset all sides equally. It has happily come to pass. The Albanese government is to be applauded, and it’s time for the Dutton opposition to get on board. Compromise is difficult in this area of policy, but it can produce more decent results than any theoretical alternative. We can keep the boats stopped decently.
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