Published in The Weekend Australian on 29.03.2014
Refugee policy is tearing at our nation’s soul. Our treatment of asylum seekers is marked by violence and beset by acrimonious, partisan bickering. Though Australia has a duty of care for asylum seekers it has contracted out that duty to Papua New Guinea and Nauru. A 23 year-old asylum seeker has been beaten to death on Manus Island. More than 1,000 asylum seekers have drowned at sea in the last six years.
The misery of refugees sitting dirt poor in camps for years is no lesser a tragedy. These refugees are too impoverished to buy air tickets to Malaysia and Indonesia and pay people smugglers for the onward boat journey to Australia.
Though it might seem that after 15 years of rancour and political enmity there is no agreeable way forward, the experience with an earlier, divisive, debate could offer guidance for how Australia might go about developing a fair, humane approach to refugee policy.
Australia has made genuine progress in reconciliation between its indigenous and non-indigenous people. What has demonstrably changed for the better is the community’s attitude towards Australia’s first people.
The starting point for progress was general acceptance by the community that the plight of indigenous Australians demanded attention. A broad consensus had been reached that we could not advance as a nation if, in the words of Paul Keating at Redfern, we have not managed to extend opportunity and care, dignity and hope to the indigenous people of Australia.
Reconciliation has not been achieved, injustices have not been removed, disadvantage has not been eradicated but progress has been made.
That’s where we must start on refugee policy: agreeing a common goal for public policy based on facts, not misinformation, exaggeration and fear mongering.
Australia, like all other democracies, has limits on the size of the immigration intake its citizens are willing to accept. Worldwide there are more than 15 million refugees. Australia’s recent total annual immigration intake has been around 210,000 people, comprising skilled migration of 130,000, family reunion of 60,000 and a humanitarian program of 20,000. Allowing all refugees arriving by boat to settle in Australia permanently would swamp the annual immigration program many times over. The community won’t accept it nor would it be fair to migrants in Australia seeking family reunion or the millions of refugees in camps.
Last year 7,500 visas were issued to asylum seekers who arrived in Australia unauthorised, while 50,000 asylum seekers applied offshore for resettlement in Australia. Both Labor and the Coalition have adopted tough policies towards asylum seekers arriving by boat, including refusal to resettle in Australia even those found to be genuine refugees. If the Australian government no longer wishes to meet its obligations under the Refugee Convention it should withdraw from it.
Some refugee advocates have argued for the establishment of a large asylum-seeker processing centre in Indonesia. While at first glance this seems a way of stemming the flow of asylum seekers risking their lives at sea, it would increase, probably greatly, the number of asylum seekers flying to Indonesia. It is therefore an unattractive proposition for Indonesia. And asylum seekers who couldn’t afford the air tickets would miss out.
None of the present policy approaches is sustainable in a fair, decent society. So how do we go about fashioning a policy that is acceptable to the community, compassionate and fair to all?
As with reconciliation, we need to develop a broad consensus that refugees deserve our care and respect. As a whole, Australians are more generous than most in their attitudes towards migrants coming to their country. Wanting an orderly immigration program doesn’t make Australians racists it makes them fair-minded.
Just as the process of reconciliation required the development of a broad, though not universal, consensus, so the achievement of a compassionate, fair and sustainable asylum seeker policy requires the building of a consensus in its favour. Realistically, this might take years to achieve. But we must make a start. That requires the abandonment of the bitter, partisan brawl over asylum seeker policy.
The appointment by the previous government of a group of eminent persons to advice on asylum seeker policy and the coming together of large numbers of MPs from all political parties to seek common ground gives good reason to be hopeful. Though the recommendations of the eminent persons group could not all be passed through the parliament, they based their work on a simple, appealing principle of no advantage to an asylum seeker arriving by boat over one arriving from offshore.
So the first step in achieving a sustainable asylum seeker policy is to appoint a small group of people respected across the political spectrum to begin the process of consensus building within the community based on the same principle of no advantage to boat arrivals. However, the Australian government should also boost its financial support for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to expedite processing in countries of first asylum.
In circumstances where Australia, through these processes, developed an orderly, fair refugee program and overall immigration program, the humanitarian component should be lifted to around 40,000 per annum: double the humanitarian program of 2012-13, and almost treble the existing program, which has reverted to 13,750 a year. Many refugees are highly skilled, so some of the increase in the refugee intake could come from within the existing skilled migration allocation.
Political parties should agree not to seek electoral advantage through the asylum seeker debate. Throwing around terms such as ‘racist,’ ‘peaceful invasion’ and ‘armada’ deepens bitterness and makes a compassionate resolution of the asylum seeker issue impossible.
Australia is big enough and decent enough to embrace a compassionate approach to asylum seekers within an orderly and expanded humanitarian program. The question is whether the political system is capable of delivering it. The experience of reconciliation with indigenous Australians suggests it is.