Mental asylum: on refugee processing and protections

There have been two undeniable tragedies over the past few days as two boats carrying asylum-seekers have capsized en route from Indonesia to Australia (fortunately, the latest one seems to have been rescued fairly effectively and the loss of life was far less, although there was still one dead and three still missing). As most readers would know, this has re-sparked the gigantic debate about Australia’s asylum-seeker policy – which has reached a fervour not seen since… the last time this happened.

There seems to be consensus that the government has to “do something” to “stop the boats”. Just what that means exactly is under fierce debate. There are three main options being pushed, so I figured that I would summarise these for all you lovely people and then give some quick thoughts on the right way to go.

1. The “Pacific Solution”

This is the Liberal Party’s pet policy – they want to replicate what was done under then Prime Minister John Howard and then Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock. This solution is designed to provide strong disincentives for people to attempt to reach Australia by boat.

It’s kind of a two-pronged assault. Firstly, anyone who arrives in Australia unlawfully and then claims asylum will be given a Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) – meaning that they are permitted to remain in Australia until it is no longer dangerous for them to be in their country of origin, at which time they will be deported “home”. This is supplemented by opening an Australian-administered asylum-seeker detention centre on a tiny Pacific atoll called Nauru, so that no one who tries to reach Australia unlawfully by boat will actually reach Australia and there are no guarantees of ever getting there.

2. The “open arms” solution

I call it that with my tongue in my cheek. This is the line being pushed by the Greens and various “refugee advocates”. At its core, the argument is that any form of offshore processing of refugees is cruel and so we should process them all in Australia and let them into the community as soon as possible.

Typically, for the people who are advocating it at least, this is a very nice and well-meaning policy but is a little detached from reality and would create huge problems if put into practise. The biggest problem is that, contrary to this narrative, not all “boat people” are just really nice, desperate people who are fleeing horrible persecution to make a contribution to our great, multicultural nation. Some of them are that, but some aren’t. In fact, the easier it seems that it is to get into Australia, the more likely it is that people who are not genuine refugees will come over.

Once someone destroys their travel documents (as these “boat people” are want to do), it is very difficult to figure out exactly who they are. This results in a small but significant number of these asylum seekers fleeing not persecution for their race, religion or politics, but for their involvement in organised crime – or even terrorism. Ignoring that element of them is dangerous, it would take just one bomb on a major piece of infrastructure and the public reaction would mean that our borders are sealed permanently (not to mention the horrible loss of life that it would inevitably entail).

3. The “Malaysia Clusterfuck Solution

This was the brainchild of the Gillard Labor government and requires a little background. The most important thing to know is that the Pacific Solution worked – boats had essentially stopped coming in 2007 when Kevin Rudd was elected Prime Minister. The new ALP government then set-about dismantling the Howard/Ruddock policies, which they had been calling “inhumane” for years, and boats promptly began coming again and have been increasing ever since.

When running for the 2010 election, Julia Gillard – aware of the political difficulty that these boatloads of asylum seekers presented for her government – announced an “East Timor Solution”. This claimed to provide the same effect as the Pacific Solution, but was supposed to be somehow different because East Timor is a signatory to the Refugee Convention (a weak argument as the Nauru centre was Australian-administered, so it was not really material whether or not Nauru had signed the Convention). Regardless, it transpired that Gillard had not seen fit to run this little idea past, you know, the East Timorese. Suffice to say it didn’t go very far.

After East Timor collapsed, the government was desperate for a solution and began floundering. They then had the genius idea of announcing that they would negotiate a solution with Malaysia after they approached Malaysia, but before they had actually negotiated a solution. Malaysia was calling all the shots and they knew it, so they eventually agreed on a kind of asylum-seeker trade: they send 4,000 Burmese Christians in exchange for 800 (presumably) Iranian and Afghani Muslims from Australia. They hate Christians, we hate Muslims, everybody wins.

After the huge outcry in Australia regarding the way refugees are treated in Malaysia (let’s just say that it involved caning of bare buttocks), the government did get Malaysia – not a signatory to the Refugee Convention – to agree to respect the refugees’ rights. In an explicitly non-binding agreement.

Problem for the government was that the Convention is annexed to the Migration Act and explicitly referred to in the provisions allowing asylum-seekers to be processed offshore, so the High Court ruled that the decision to implement the Malaysia Solution was not made according to the power conferred on Chris Bowen, the Immigration Minister, which requires that the rights and protections of refugees under the Convention are respected. The government then tried to remove these protections, but this was (thankfully) blocked by pretty much everyone else in Parliament.

Offshore in general

So here comes the real analysis (woohoo!). The most common argument against offshore processing (chiefly the Pacific Solution) is that it made no real difference and the number of unlawful arrivals in Australia is just a reflection of global trends (see, eg, this). This claim has absolutely no basis in any fact or evidence. The numbers speak for themselves really. Consider this table first from the Australian Parliament:

Year No arrivals
1999 3721
2000 2939
2001 5516
2002 1
2003 53
2004 15
2005 11
2006 60
2007 148
2008 161
2009 2726
2010 6555
2011 4565

Now, look at this table from the UNHCR:

Share of main receiving countries of asylumseekers in total number of applications

Countries 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
United States 15% 13% 13% 15% 17%
France 9% 9% 11% 13% 12%
Germany 6% 6% 7% 11% 10%
Italy 4% 8% 5% 3% 8%
Sweden 11% 6% 6% 9% 7%
Belgium 3% 3% 5% 6% 6%
United Kingdom 8% 8% 8% 6% 6%
Canada 8% 10% 9% 6% 6%
Switzerland 3% 4% 4% 4% 4%
Turkey 2% 3% 2% 3% 4%
Austria 4% 3% 4% 3% 3%
Netherlands 2% 4% 4% 4% 3%
Australia 1% 1% 2% 3% 3%
Greece 8% 5% 4% 3% 2%
Norway 2% 4% 5% 3% 2%

That is very clear evidence that Australia’s number of asylum seekers has not been keeping up with global trends. To the contrary, the number of asylum claims in Australia relative to the rest of the world has tripled since 2007. I don’t need to bother with more sophisticated statistics (although many have), anyone who looks at that data without blind bias can see that something made Australia far more attractive to asylum seekers in 2007 than it had been before.

On the other hand

I now have to write what is possibly the most difficult thing that I have ever written on this site.

Here goes…

Greens leader Christine Milne has a point.

Australia takes a negligible number of asylum seekers from Indonesia and Malaysia (somewhere in the neighbourhood of 60p/a) – the two sources of these boats. Both of these countries are not good places for refugees and in Malaysia they are actually persecuted, meaning that they still have refugee status and (as mentioned before) it is illegal to deport any refugee back there.

Disincentivising the journey is all very well, however it will not work so long as the incentive to come is still stronger. The refugees in Indonesia and Malaysia know that they have almost no hope of ever being resettled, they cannot go home and they cannot stay where they are. Getting on a boat is their only hope and while that remains true, they will continue to come.

The solution requires that incentive to be changed as well. Australia needs to substantially increase the number of refugees that we take from Malasia and Indonesia, it’s as simple as that. Once we are taking several thousand a year, they will know that they would probably make it here eventually if need be and the UNHCR camps would look more appealing than our detention centres.

To summarise

Given all of the above, here is the ideal solution in my opinion:

Combine the Pacific Solution and the surprisingly lucid Milne solution. Have a processing centre on Nauru (which, by the way, does great things for the impoverished island nation as well) but also commit to taking a few thousand asylum seekers from Indonesia and Malaysia each year. It will make the boat journeys seem unappealing while providing another option for the truly desperate people in Indonesia and Malaysia.

And no deportation to Malaysia. I was almost throwing my iPad against the wall this morning while Gillard was on it trying to sell that solution as though it is really the humanitarian thing to do. She was advocating for the removal of all the refugee rights under the Convention as ratified in Australian legislation, simple as that. It is disgraceful and inhumane – no amount of spin will change that. The principle of non-refoulement lies at the very core of the refugee framework, which means that you cannot deport someone fleeing persecution to a place where they will still be persecuted. According to Gillard and Bowen, refoulement is the humane choice. Go figure…


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  1. #1 by Rubyred on June 29, 2012 - 3:52 pm

    That sounds very sensible to me. The only other thing I would suggest is to sack the Government. Perhaps you would have a good idea about that.

  2. #2 by MK on June 30, 2012 - 4:05 pm

    I have a great idea about that. It involves putting numbers into little boxes on a ballot form.

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