(Image via border.gov.au)

We may be able to combine humanitarian principles with political pragmatism to find an acceptable “solution” to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, says Dee Jarrack.

A NEW DOCUMENTARY, Chasing Asylum, is again arousing shame and anger at the appalling psychological and physical damage we inflict on people who have attempted to seek asylum in Australia.

But then there’s a lot of righteous emotion on all sides of the asylum seeker debate.

Those who broadly support the policies of the Turnbull Government and the Shorten Opposition tell us, in effect, that we have to be cruel to be kind — subject people to awful and interminable lives on Manus and Nauru so we can prevent others risking drowning on boat journeys and to allow Australia to control and limit the numbers of asylum seekers we need to deal with. For these groups, humanitarian concerns are a luxury we can’t afford to place above national security and protection of our lifestyle and culture.

In contrast, those who argue for asylum seekers to be allowed into Australia and for most to be able to live in the community with few or no restrictions, start and end with humanitarian concerns and ethical principles. They give short shift to arguments about border control, national security or absorptive capacity. There’s precious little middle ground between these two positions, or any obvious way to reconcile them. And so the arguments circle around, with emotions aroused and abuse levelled on all sides.

Might it be possible to control our borders and manage a reasonable inflow of refugees without resorting to inhumane and shameful treatment? A combination of past and present policies and policy proposals that have been quietly discussed in some circles over recent months might just be enough to move us forward.

Political reality demands we recognise that, rightly or wrongly, a sizeable proportion of the population are at best very wary of uncontrolled boat arrivals and at worst actively hostile. Any resurgence of asylum seeker boats is certain to alarm these people, particularly when (as is also certain) their fears are fanned by anti-immigrant groups and sections of the media.

This would certainly boost the stocks of more extreme right wing groups, just as it is currently doing in Europe. Such groups would undoubtedly use their influence to attempt to reverse policies seen to be soft on refugees. Furthermore, alongside a push for cryptoracist policies, right wing extremists would also attempt to wind back other policies that many supporters of all three major political parties consider progressive. So any realistic proposals to end detention on Manus and Nauru need to avoid a resumption of boat arrivals.

That doesn’t mean that we should ignore humanitarian concerns, or our international obligations. But such concerns and obligations must sit alongside a recognition of political and social realities. Otherwise, they are likely to be pure in intention but ineffectual in outcome — to the detriment of asylum seekers and other important social policies.

In the absence of other realistic proposals about how we might control boat arrivals without sacrificing humanitarian principles, a small group of “principled pragmatists” has put together a package of measures that, taken together, might have a chance of doing that. Or failing that, they might at least move the discussion from platitudes and rhetorical flourishes to a consideration of practical solutions:

Firstly, to deal with the immediate political and humanitarian conundrum of Manus Island, the government should allow all of those detained on Manus Island and Nauru to come to Australia (and, if possible, to New Zealand or Canada) for assessment and processing. Those who are found to have valid refugee claims should be immediately granted asylum.

It seems reasonable to assume (as the government may argue) that such a move would be a signal to those in transit camps in Indonesia and elsewhere, and to various people smugglers, to resume attempts to reach Australia by sea. In order to counter such perceptions and the consequent resumption of boats, two additional steps would be required:

In an approach similar to the proposed 2011 “Malaysia Solution” transfer and resettlement arrangement, a firm announcement should be made that a significant number (at least the first thousand) people apprehended while attempting to reach Australia by boat would be immediately flown to Malaysia (and possibly other countries such as Indonesia), where they would be allowed to live in the community. 

This would be a safer alternative to the current “turn back the boats” policy, or returning people to the countries from which they are fleeing.

The government would also make it very clear that these people transferred to Malaysia (or other third countries) would have no hope of being considered for asylum in Australia, even if found to have valid refugee claims.

In exchange, Australia would take at least an equivalent number of people from Malaysia with refugee claims accepted by UNHCR before the date of the announcement. If widely publicised, such a policy should substantially reduce incentives for people to try to reach Australia by boat, particularly if accompanied by the next element.

The government would announce and widely promote a major increase in Australia’s refugee intake (for example, 50,000 per year, the figure proposed by the Greens) but with specific conditions:

  • Priority would initially be given to people currently in transit camps in Indonesia.(People who arrive after the announcement would not be considered.)
  • However, the policy should also make it very clear that after these people have been processed, no further asylum seekers will be taken from Indonesia. Future asylum seekers will only be taken from UNHCR camps in other countries (perhaps only from countries of first asylum), thus creating a strong disincentive for people to try to continue to travel to Indonesia.

This combination of policies and actions might be expected to both dissuade further boat arrivals while providing hope and better conditions for many more refugees, and ceasing the misery and international shame of off-shore detention.

It would therefore seem to have a chance of gaining support from all but the more extreme advocates on either side of this issue. And as well as providing asylum for more refugees, it would reduce the potential for political scaremongering on asylum seekers that distracts attention from other domestic issues the country is facing.

The most difficult elements of such an approach are likely to be persuading the entrenched advocates on all sides of the asylum seeker issue to realise that it might be possible for each to achieve most of their objectives if they are a bit more flexible in their approaches. (Those who cynically use the asylum seeker “debate” for their own political benefit are unlikely to be swayed but could be rendered less relevant by “middle ground” options.)

The “wins” for the pro-asylum seeker side would be the closure of Manus and Nauru, significantly more refugees being given asylum in Australia and a less risky method of returning would-be boat arrivals. Furthermore, if the policy succeeds and we are able to discuss refugee issues with less fear and loathing, it could limit the resurgence of anti-refugee/immigrant right wing groups and promote a more positive domestic social and political environment for refugees.

On the conservative side, those genuinely concerned about deaths at sea could expect to see these remain relatively low — and a decrease in those less visible deaths in transit camps and refugee centres overseas. Those who fear unknown and potentially huge numbers of unmanageable boat arrivals – and particularly that many of these may not have valid refugee claims – should feel reassured that we would only be taking in agreed numbers who met UNHCR’s and our criteria.

It’s conceivable that either a Turnbull Coalition or a Shorten Labor Government might see such an approach as an ideologically acceptable attempt to address both an immediate headache (Manus) as well as a long term strategic problem. While the Greens opposed the Migration Act changes in 2011, a more pragmatic Greens leadership and the significant increase in refugee numbers proposed, may mean that the party would be a bit more flexible in its response to such changes in the future .

The proposals outlined here clearly need more thoughtful consideration by those with deeper experience in the field. We are sure many will object to aspects of this approach. But in the absence of any other serious proposal to jointly address border protection and humanitarian concerns, “principled pragmatism” just might provide a few openings.

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