Saturday, 18 August 2012

sinking debate

What has Australia come to, that we can treat asylum seekers so cruelly, while claiming to do so from compassion?

How can we tolerate crocodile tears for drownings at sea from politicians who demonise the very people who have died?

What future have we in our region when we demand our neighbours take from us the burden of responsibilities we are treaty-bound to assume ourselves?

What of our reputation when we impose harsh requirements on poor client states to do what they do not want to do – take on the politically embarrassing refugees who have come seeking our help?

What madness is it when an opposition leader is praised for his mantra of ‘turning back the boats’ when he could not do so even if this were a desirable end?

How can we take seriously those who talk of ‘the people smugglers’ business model’ as if this desperate movement of people were somehow workshopped at a Harvard MBA school?

By what folly have we permitted the term ‘border protection’ to insinuate itself into our discourse about those coming to our country seeking our protection – as if by crossing our borders to ask for our help they compromise the borders whose protection they invoke?

And how is it that those who call for compassionate treatment of asylum seekers are all but accused of murdering them at sea?

The current debate on asylum seekers has seen a new nadir in the Australian body politic. Not only are the arguments callous, they are  detached from evidence and logic, swamped by calculations of political advantage, and it seems the vast majority cannot see or does not care what this is doing to our country.

Let us go through the current position. 

Low numbers

About 6000 people currently come to Australia by boat each year seeking asylum. 

These boat numbers are (for the 90% accepted as genuine refugees) part of our humanitarian intake. In 2010-11 our humanitarian intake accepted just 8971 people from overseas, and 4828 people already here (ie 13,799 in total). The budgeted figure for 2011-12 is 14,750. The figure has now increased to 20,000, something which asylum seeker support groups and the Greens have been seeking for years.

Australia has a total annual migrant intake in excess of 110,000 per annum, so the numbers coming by boat are a very small fraction.

Compared with other nations, our intake is tiny. For example, Canada in 2010 granted asylum to 23,160 refugees, and in the same year France granted asylum to 47,790. We had 6,535 boat arrivals in 2010, but Greece had 46,015, and Italy 82,248.

Australia can easily absorb the numbers who come. The hysteria that politicians and others have been able to generate about these small numbers plays on deep-seated fears in our community. We have never properly acknowledged that we dispossessed others who were here before us, and we in our turn fear those who come by boat. We always have. It has nothing to do with objective difficulties to our nation. After all, as we proclaim in our national anthem:

For those who've come across the seas
We've boundless plains to share

Why are we tying ourselves in knots over a problem that we should be able to handle with comparative ease?

Political Imperatives

At the time of writing, Labor wants to get asylum seekers off the front pages, because the issue is doing them harm. The Coalition want to keep that issue there, because it helps them. Labor has been prepared to offer anything to the Coalition to get rid of the issue.

As a political circuit breaker, they appointed the 'Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers' which has now submitted its recommendations - based on the terms of reference it was given.
The panel recommended that the Humanitarian Program be increased to 20,000 places per annum - a positive.

However, the panel also recommended processing in PNG, Nauru, and Malaysia, as well as a ‘no advantage’ principle to ensure that no benefit is gained through circumventing 'regular migration arrangements'.

Legislation very rapidly cobbled together after the report was delivered has now passed both houses of the federal parliament, with the Greens the only party to oppose it,

That legislation goes beyond the recommendations of the expert panel. It denies asylum seekers basic human rights. In particular, the legislation explicitly states that asylum seekers are to be denied natural justice, it explicitly states that 'protections' to asylum seekers are not legally binding on the government, and it removes the role of the Minister as guardian of unaccompanied children - thus removing his (or anyone else's) accountability if he does not act in the best interests of the child.

"Queue jumpers"

By definition, a person cannot seek asylum as a refugee unless they have fled their own country. There is no queue in Iraq or Afghanistan to take them. They must get out as best they can, and then find somewhere to live. Some are able to be assessed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but even then they are not guaranteed resettlement – many who have taken boats to Australia have already been assessed to be refugees by the UNHCR. Some have no opportunity to be assessed before they take a boat to Australia.

As the UN has pointed out, queue jumping is a myth.

By all means let us establish orderly mechanisms for refugees seeking to invoke our protection to come to Australia, but until we do, it is frankly dishonest to use the term ‘queue jumper’ because for most who come by boat there is no queue to jump.

"Border protection"

We all want our borders protected. After all, the term implies invasion by some foreign military force after which our borders may be redrawn and we lose part or all of our country. We don't want that.

But that is nothing to do with the case. People coming here by boat as asylum seekers do not threaten our borders. They invoke the protection of our borders. It is as foolish to use the border protection paradigm as it would be to speak of a mediaeval person seeking the sanctuary of the church threatening the church's jurisdiction.

Crossing the border to seek our protection does not threaten our borders at all, and it is folly to use the term. The only threat to our borders comes from politicians who have excised large parts of Australia from the so-called 'Migration Zone' where the usual rights and legal protections no longer apply. That really does threaten our borders, because it creates a large zone which is not fully accepted as part of Australian jurisdiction.

International relations

Australia was one of the first countries to sign the Refugee Convention in 1954. This followed the disgrace of the world failing to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe, and was an attempt to ensure that this would not happen again.

We have obligations under that convention, obligations we have undertaken before the nations of the world. 

It is our obligation to assess whether a person claiming asylum here is a genuine refugee. We have an obligation of 'non-refoulement' - ie not forcibly returning refugees to the country from which they have fled. It is our responsibility to accommodate those who have come here seeking protection.

How can we expect our most important regional partners, Malaysia, Indonesia (curiously not mentioned in the experts' report) and Thailand, to agree to take on new and heavy responsibilities to thousands of desperate people seeking asylum when the starting point for negotiations is that we won’t? They will expect billions of dollars to be thrown in, but they will despise our attitude.

We are left with offshore processing in poverty-stricken client states like PNG and Nauru, pending the outcome of patronizing, protracted and indeterminate negotiations with Malaysia and other similar nations. That is, the Pacific Solution and all its attendant dangers and damage.

Unless Australia is willing to undertake its fair share in dealing with this problem - starting with the obligations we have publicly undertaken - we will damage our international standing. 

We need good relations in our region. We need to be a good neighbour so we can ask for help when we need it. This roughshod shirking of our responsibilities is doing our nation long term harm.

Psychiatric harm

We already know that the mandatory detention of asylum seekers - including in offshore facilities like Manus Island and Nauru - causes serious long term psychiatric harm. 

The longer detention now contemplated will cause more harm. It is unconscionable for a government to contemplate causing such harm to people, especially those who have already suffered and have come seeking our help. The dehumanizing involved in holding people in such institutions with inadequate facilities, no proper access to legal assistance, no definite end to their incarceration, is damaging to those held, but it also brutalises our nation. How can we do this to people and not expect this cancer to metastasise through our body politic?


One of the most insidious aspects of the current debate is expressed as concern for the safety of asylum seekers. Safety as a value cannot be criticised. Everyone's in favour of it. And there's no doubt that the losses of asylum seekers at sea are tragic.

Pardon me for saying so, but much of this concern for the safety of asylum seekers is frankly hypocritical. The coalition have made much of their reputation for being 'tough on asylum seekers', and they have boasted at the toughness (lack of compassion) in their policies. It is hard to see anything sincere about their concern for the safety of asylum seekers. If that were a genuine concern, why do they not also care about the mental harm mandatory detention policies have done to so many? 

Many politicians have demonised asylum seekers, a fact not lost on the UN, which has repeatedly criticised Australian politicians for doing so. Scott Morrison, for example, has said that they “bring disease … wads of  cash … and large displays of  jewellery”. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, knowing the claim to be false, continues to refer to asylum seekers as 'illegals'. The media only rarely challenge him for the lie. 

When such men proclaim their grief for the people they continue to demonise it is hard to take them seriously. Beware the confected grieving of powerful men. There is often a deeper and uglier agenda beneath.

And in this case the agenda is justification of harsh measures against asylum seekers 'to deter them'. 

The conventional wisdom has been that John Howard stopped the boats, and he did so by harsh measures. But the Pacific Solution coincided with the Norwegian sponsored peace agreement in Sri Lanka - during which time there were no Tamils fleeing from that country. It coincided with the shocked quiet that initially followed the invasions respectively of Afghanistan and Iraq. Weighing up John Howard's policy in order to determine whether to come to Australia, if it happened at all, was low on the list of asylum seeker priorities.

An ugly feature of this argument has been vilification of those who oppose offshore processing as 'supporting people dying at sea'. There are many examples of this particularly vile rhetoric. The twittersphere has recorded tweets such as 'Greens support profiteering from people dying at sea' and 'I prefer to support people dying at sea so we can feel good while eating our tofu at expensive fundraisers'. It is not just asylum seekers who are being demonised now. Those who call for their humane treatment are accused of supporting their deaths. This represents a new low in our national debate and is the kind of hyperbole apt to divide a country.

People who get on boats to come to Australia do so knowing it is dangerous. They are fleeing from tyrannical regimes. If they wait for resettlement in refugee internment camps they can wait all their lives. Coming here by boat is not a lifestyle choice. And we think we can deter them? We can only do this if coming to Australia is less attractive than facing down the regime they want to flee.

They are Hazaras fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Tamils fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka, people who have reached the point of desperation. As the panel has noted, they are genuine refugees - 90% are found to be so after they arrive.

To pursue deterrence as a policy in this area is to choose a dangerous moral position: we will cause harm to someone who has committed no crime in order to make some other unspecified person decide it's not worth it to come. Holding or hurting someone who has committed no crime in order to make someone else act in a different way is in my view immoral - it is the same moral choice as taken by the extortionist. 

Having chosen the path of deterrence, any effective deterrent must make the option of coming to Australia nastier than the option of remaining to be persecuted by a tyrannical regime. 

Is that the kind of country we want?

'Protecting people' from the risks of boat travel to Australia has as its counterpart leaving them exposed to the risks they seek to escape.

Making people wait on Manus Island or Nauru for years will not save lives, and there has been no credible case made that it could - but we know it will cause detainees long term harm. 

I do not believe that this is genuinely about saving lives at all. I do not believe that has been the guiding principle for action by government of either stripe on this issue. It's about giving refugees a hard time so the government can claim to be tough on boat people.

This demeans Australia. The world will rightly despise us for such behaviour.

No advantage

The expert panel on asylum seekers has recommended a ‘no advantage’ principle to ensure that no benefit is gained through circumventing regular migration arrangements. In practical terms, it is hard to know what this will mean.

As Julian Burnside puts it so well: 
What are the dynamics of all this?  Sending people to Nauru or PNG and resettling them at the time when they would otherwise have been resettled is obviously intended as a deterrent (or ‘disincentive’ as the report calls it).  Same for turning boats back.  The point is to make coming to Australia less attractive.  There’s a couple of problems here.  First, how do you determine when a person would otherwise have been resettled?  Do you measure the average time in an African camp?  Do you look at the average time the same person would have spent in Malaysia or Indonesia?  That will throw up a different answer. It’s going to cause problems. The average time for resettlement can range from 5 years to 40 years. Let’s take 5 years to keep the maths simple. A boat person will get a ‘5-year penalty’.  Presumably they will be held in Nauru or Manus Island during that time, before being resettled somewhere (the report does not say where they might be resettled).  If this year’s boat people number (to August) is used as the annual average arrival rate, then Nauru (or Manus Island) will have to accommodate 35,000 boat people while the principle of ‘no advantage’ plays out. That would involve the population of Nauru increasing by 540%, or the population of Manus Island increasing by 81%.  (If they came to Australia, the population would increase by 0.002%).  Has this been run through the common-sense filter?

The policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers, and even more so the policy of offshore detention, costs our nation billions of dollars. It's as if money is no object on this issue. Which is scarcely surprising, because the policy is not driven by reason.

Compromise and being reasonable

The Greens have been criticised for not compromising on this issue. They are not realistic. They are not 'players'. They are 'out of touch'. Often, compromise is a very good thing, and the Greens have demonstrated a capacity to compromise on issues and work through them again and again. 

But compromise is not an end in itself. If the compromise leads to an amelioration of harm, or an increase in good, it is worth doing. But if there is no improved policy outcome to be gained from compromise, sometimes all that remains is the simple dignity of standing firmly for what you believe in, bearing witness that at least someone was prepared to oppose an evil.

Time will tell, but I believe the Greens will be vindicated for their stand.


We are not seeing the kind of leadership Australia needs on this issue. We have leaders advocating cruelty to vulnerable asylum seekers for their own political advantage. Our leaders make no appeals to any great vision of what Australia should and could be. We have no inspiring declaration of independence from our founding fathers to which they can look for guidance. Our leaders do not invoke the great principles of human rights, in relation to which Australia once took a lead. When the UN Human Rights Committee criticises our asylum seeker policies and particularly mandatory detention, Australia petulantly ignores the rebukes.

Where there are no great principles invoked, all too often we are left with self-interest.

And indeed we see a debate which is self-serving, dishonest, divorced from facts and logic, and which gives licence to treat vulnerable people cruelly. When we regard it as acceptable to mistreat the vulnerable, we are doing long term harm to our nation, for we diminish what it means to be Australian.

We Australians think that the kind of divisions we see in other nations cannot happen here. But they can happen anywhere if leaders are not astute to keep our community healthy. The recent debate on asylum seekers, and the decisions to which it has given rise, carries with it the danger of fraying the fabric of our community.


  1. Thank you for addressing these issues with such clarity and common sense, Brian.

    I'll be sharing this as widely as I possibly can.



    1. Thanks so much, Les. Hope you are well! Brian

  2. Brian, thank you. Thank you for being straight to the point and clear. Like Les, I will be sharing this widely too.
    Warm regards...

  3. Thanks for exposing the hypocrisy and "false compassion" in the current debate re Asylum Seekers. I too have been appalled at the vitriol levelled at the Greens by some people for simply maintaining their consistent and humane principles. The debate has become so twisted that Labor supporters in particular are doing contortions of logic to justify their Party's embrace of punitive measures worse than those of Howard, which they protested so strongly against. Dark days indeed!

    1. Thanks, Marian. I do hope we Australians can rise above this debate. Brian

  4. Thanks, many good points and a great link to the ABC article about Mr Abbott, but regarding "Coming here by boat is not a lifestyle choice. And we think we can deter them? We can only do this if coming to Australia is less attractive than facing down the regime they want to flee." - isn't the intention to make the boat journey less attractive than staying in Indonesia, not in the country they want to flee? That's part of the reason for increasing places to 20,000 - increased incentive to stay in Indonesia.

    Also, there's the issue that while we can accommodate current numbers, if we do so those numbers will probably start to increase..

    So I think it's quite a complicated issue and those backing the Houston report shouldn't be demonised either..

  5. Not all boats come from Indonesia, although the majority do. Indonesia is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, but it is still probably obliged not to refoule refugees, and Indonesia does not have a policy of doing so. However, many refugees are returned from Indonesia because they are in the country irregularly and often find it hard to access the UNHCR. Deportation back to the country of origin is a real possibility. Nor can they settle lawfully in Indonesia - they are in limbo, frequently in detention, and this often extends for many, many years. They have no real hope for themselves or their families. See this link for more detailed discussion -
    As to increase in numbers, this remains to be seen, and is largely driven by factors of instability in countries from which refugees flee. At present I think the evidence is clear that the numbers coming are largely unrelated to the way asylum seekers are treated here.
    I agree that those who support the Houston report should not be demonised. However, I think that when arguments on this issue are fatuous we should say so, because to remain silent in the face of abuse of the innocent is dangerous to us all.

  6. Well said Brian.

    "Deterrence" is clearly not working. Labor's recut version of John Howard's old policies won't achieve what they say it will. Its all about politics and appearance, and attempting to take the wind out of Abbott's sails.

    The only decent and humane approach is onshore processing outside of razor wire.

    Some focus is needed on "prevention" - what is causing people to take this perilous passage - rather than simplistic and attempts at "cure" that won't work.

    I have written to my local MP on this matter here

  7. This whole debate is not about "illegals" which they are not, queue jumpers or any other derogatory term dreamed up by Prime Minister Julia Howard and Tony Abbott and their sycophants.
    Let us call it what it is - racial bigotry. It is the White Australia policy 21st Century style and as I recall both sides of politics were in favour of it when it started in the 20th Century as they are now.
    Perhaps if we were to call a spade a spade we might get somewhere instead of arguing about peripheral matters.
    Let us honour our commitments under the Refugee Convention and welcome and resettle these people who want to make Australia their home, work hard, raise families and generally contribute to the public good.

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