Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Stopping the Boats

So, the talks between Government and Opposition on reviving offshore processing have collapsed.  Even though both government and opposition want basically the same thing, each wants their own version of it and neither will compromise.  This is undoubtedly good news for asylum seekers, at least in the short term, because Australia's current laws as interpreted by the High Court are more compassionate than either of our main parties would like them to be.

Meanwhile, Tony Abbot has plumbed new depths of absurdity in this increasingly absurd debate, suggesting that a Coalition Government would return boats to Indonesia.   As usual, Abbot is a little short on practicality here. 

First of all, there is the issue of detecting the boats.  The ocean is wide, the boats are small.  Often the first Australian authorities know of their existence is when they chug into the dock on Christmas Island.

Secondly, there is the issue of the process of their return.  Most of the boats are not seaworthy, so it is irresponsible to send them back unaccompanied.  The alternative of towing them back, or ferrying the passengers back on coastguard ships, is unlikely to be popular with our friends in Indonesia - not to mention that while the towing is taking place, other boats can't be intercepted.

Speaking of Indonesia, what do they think of all this?  Well from the evidence in the Australian media, they are sensibly staying out of the silliness that passes for Australian politics.  However, I suspect that they are likely to say that Australia should solve its own refugee problems, and refuse any such boats permission to enter Indonesian waters.  All of which is also very unhelpful.

Hence we have seen Abbot, Australia's most prominent cyclist, back-pedalling furiously, inserting the words "where possible" into the equation and going back to the same old same old of Temporary Protection Visas and reopening the Nauru detention centre.

Which brings me to the real point.  Before anything else, good policy is about clearly defining your objectives, and then finding credible ways of achieving them.  If you can't find a way of achieving your objective, or the achievement of the objective causes too much collateral damage, you need to change your objective. 

Both of our major parties have allowed themselves to be persuaded that the major objective is to stop unauthorised arrivals into Australia.  Their main way of achieving this is to provide a deterrent - imprison the smugglers, hold refugees in detention for long periods.  When this doesn't work, their response is to up the deterrent - Labor wants to send them to Malaysia, the Coalition wants to send them to Nauru or back to Indonesia and if they can't do that re-introduce Temporary Protection Visas.  Flogging is presumably not far off, and some of the proposed solutions already look unconscionably close to drowning.

I have two problems with this.  Firstly, I think the objective is wrong.  These are people fleeing persecution, war or other forms of suffering, and the prime objective should be to provide them with refuge and safety.  This is not to say this needs to happen in Australia.  One of the reasons people make these boat jouneys is that neither Indonesia nor Malaysia are signatories to the United Nations refugee convention so asylum seekers are unable to gain any legal status in those countries.  Changes in those and other countries would save people a dangerous boat trip.  However, until those changes take place, we need to be prepared to deal humanely with those who do arrive here.

Secondly, the collateral damage is too great.  The financial cost of our deterrent measures is exhorbitant, and increases as we try to up the deterrent.  Latest Immigration Department estimates suggest that re-opening the Nauru detention centre will cost $1.7b.  This figure may be inflated for political purposes, but even the previous estimate of just under $1b is exhorbitant. 

However, this is a lesser concern to the human cost.  Extended detention (especially in overcrowded centres), long periods of uncertainty and deportation are huge sources of trauma for refugees, already traumatised by their experiences in their home countries.  These are people whose only "crime" is to seek refuge.

I've already said what I think we should do and if you missed it you can read it here.  It's time for us to wake up and rediscover our compassion and generosity.

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