Saturday, 10 September 2011

Letter to Julia Gillard

The following is a slightly edited version of a letter I sent to my local member and copied to Ms Gillard and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.

The recent High Court decision preventing the government from sending recent boat arrivals to Malaysia is a good opportunity for your government to rethink your approach to asylum seekers.

It’s time to accept that the policy of mandatory detention is an expensive failure. In the two decades in which it has been in place, it has done nothing to stop boat arrivals. At the same time it has a massive cost in a number of different ways.

It is costly financially – I understand it costs around $1b per year to manage Australia’s current asylum seeker system, with the majority of this funding the detention centres. That would pay for a lot of resettlement services!

It is costly in human terms, in the trauma inflicted on the detainees themselves, particularly as centres become more crowded and longer term detainees become more stressed. This trauma comes on top of the original danger that drove them from their homeland.

It is costly to the resettlement process. Given that the majority of detainees are eventually resettled in Australia, it is imperative that they develop a love of their new homeland and feel welcome and wanted here. Yet if their first experience of our country is a traumatic period of detention, they will always carry a certain ambivalence towards our community and this will make it harder for them to feel at home and commit to their new country.

It is costly to all of us in moral terms. Since 1992 we have seen a gradual escalation in the stringency of our response, as we try to toughen the deterrence factor to the point where it will actually work. Each step in this escalation makes us crueller, less compassionate, less able to see asylum seekers as people. Ultimately it will only work if our response to asylum seekers is worse than the despotic regimes they are fleeing. Is that what we want to become?

It is politically costly to your government. It turns what should be a good news story into bad news.  Thousands of refugees have been settled in our community, and almost all of them are valued community members who make a positive contribution to our society. Yet instead of these stories being front and centre, coverage of the issue is dominated by the zero sum game of detention and deterrence. You will never win that battle and you need to stop trying to fight on that ground.

Asylum seekers should be allowed to live in the community while their claims are assessed. They should be provided with financial support and allowed to work or study. Your $1b budget would cover the costs of this temporary community settlement, even allowing for an increase in arrivals and the cost of tracking down occasional absconders. You might even be able to up the resources for processing claims and cut down the absurdly long waiting times. Those who are eventually granted refugee status would be already well on the way to resettlement. Those who are not would be deported just the same, but be spared the cruelty in the meantime.

Certainly this might result in more boats coming and you would be criticised, but you are being criticised anyway. You have nothing to lose. At least instead of stories about bulging detention facilities, riots, fires and mental health problems the stories would be about ordinary people living in ordinary homes, trying to rebuild their lives.

I know your government has invested a lot of political capital in the deterrence approach, but it is clearly not working. You have the chance to make a real difference. Don’t blow it.

1 comment:

Tamsyn Eastgate said...

Sounds good. Worth a try at least!