What should Prime Minister Kevin Rudd do about boat arrivals? John Menadue

Jul 1, 2013

The new government has indicated that it will be reviewing current policies on such issues as carbon reduction and boat arrivals. I have written extensively about asylum seekers and refugees. I suggest that in the short term, the PM should consider the following on boat arrivals.

  1. We need some perspective in the political debate. We should acknowledge that there is a political problem but there is no need to panic. We are a nation of immigrants and refugees. Our wealth is built on it. We had about 16,000 asylum seekers in 2012, although there has been a surge in recent months in boat arrivals (7,500 in the March quarter) compared with air arrivals (2,200 in the same quarter). In 2012 the US had 82,000 asylum claimants. In Germany it was 64,000, in France 55,000 and in Sweden 44,000. Our borders will never be completely secure but as an island continent and country we are much more secure than almost any other country and the number of asylum seekers coming to Australia is quite small compared with other countries. There is a world-wide problem of refugee flows eg Syria and we cannot isolate ourselves from the problem.
    Apart from our migration program of about 200,000 persons per annum, we have over 700,000 foreigners who can work in Australia under various temporary resident permits, e.g. 457, working holiday and student visas.
  2. Every new group that comes to Australia, whether migrants or refugees, has encountered opposition and sometimes hostility. There were problems but we worked through them. This opposition has included for example criticism of Germans, Jews, ‘Balts’, Italians and more recently, Vietnamese. But over time we came to accept and welcome their contribution to Australia. The same will be true of the current flow of asylum seekers to Australia. Migration and refugee intakes will always be work in progress with some bumps along the way .Our history tells us that we can be confident in overcoming the problems.
  3. Refugees are great settlers. They are highly motivated, initially for their own survival, but for their future in their new country together with their children. Without that motivation they would not have fled in the first place. I wrote about the success of refugees in my blog ‘Never underestimate a survivor’ on June 27.
  4. Initiate diplomatic action and open discussions with countries which are the source of refugee flows, e.g. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.  With the cooperation of those governments, who are often glad to get rid of dissidents, we should aim to negotiate   orderly departure arrangements that would allow persons facing persecution to come to Australia as migrants, not as refugees. Many such persons in those countries would have family in Australia and will take to the boats if there is no alternative eg Hazaras in Afghanistan and Pakistan… Australia negotiated an Orderly Departure Program with the Vietnam Government in 1983 which enabled 100,000 Vietnamese to come to Australia in an orderly way and without risking their lives at sea.
  5. Renewed efforts must be made to build regional cooperation. Without that collaboration there will never be any long-term ‘solution’ to boat arrivals. That regional cooperation was essential during the Indochina outflow of the late 1970s and 1980s. It is also true today.  Australia should propose a regional conference on asylum seekers and displacement. Australia should offer to host such a regional conference. This action is designed to accelerate the ‘Bali process’. This process began many years ago by addressing regional concerns about crime, smuggling and trafficking in persons. It has now developed into a regional collaboration on refugee flows and human displacement as well as crime. It needs new impetus.Regional countries have major refugee burdens. Thailand has 600,000 people of concern to the UNHCR. Malaysia has more than 200,000 displaced persons within its country. Australia has a much lighter load, 30,000 refugees and 20,000 asylum seekers pending determination of their status.

    The concept of regional burden sharing is essential if there is to be long-term success. That burden-sharing must be not only by the host countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, but also by resettlement countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the US, which has just joined the Bali process.

    In urgently building on Bali, we should include in that collaboration the NGOs and other elements in civil society who have an interest and concern on asylum seekers and refugees. Their involvement will help create a less politicised environment in which to explore and develop long-term resettlement.

  6. As part of this regional framework, PM Rudd should propose to the Indonesian President that in collaboration with UNHCR a regional processing centre be established in Indonesia. Australia should offer to fund a substantial part of the centre as well as other costs that Indonesia bears as a temporary refuge for persons in transit through its country. It would be better value for money than the billions we spend/waste on mandatory detention. We should also offer to provide education, health and employment opportunities for persons in Indonesia who have been closely involved in the region from which boats embark for Christmas Island.
  7. The Gillard Government correctly decided to progressively release detainees into the community on bridging visas whilst their refugee status was being determined. The numbers of such released persons is imposing a heavy burden on NGOs, including the churches. These asylum seekers on bridging visas are also not allowed to work. The new government should change policy on this immediately and allow asylum seekers to work and contribute to the economy whilst their status is being determined. It is claimed that to allow them to work would provide an incentive for more asylum seekers to come. There is no evidence anywhere in the world that would support this contention. See my blog of March 8.

All of the above should be seen as part of a package to address the divisive and futile issue of asylum seekers.

It is to be hoped that PM Rudd will not try to take us down the morally dubious and factually unsupported track that Foreign Minister Bob Carr is suggesting – that most refugees are in fact economic migrants and presumably not deserving a humanitarian response. After review, the Refugee Review Tribunal has found that 90% of boat arrivals are genuine migrants. The RRT has more facts before it than the Department of Immigration and presumably ministers. It may be politically attractive to go down the track that Bob Carr proposes but there are no facts that I know of which would support his contention.

The biggest mistakes of the previous government on these issues was to commission the Expert Panel and then to reverse its position and re-open Nauru and Manus. The government was told that Nauru and Manus would not work again, and that has turned out to be correct. The number of boat arrivals has kept increasing. The reversal of policy on Nauru and Manus also made the government look weak and indecisive.

A regional response is the only viable way forward. It will not be a dead end as so much refugee “policy” is at present. But it will take time. We must put in the “hard yards” here but be patient at the same time. Don’t panic.







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