Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Boat Race to the Bottom

So, after months of deadlock and confusion, the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers has provided Julia Gillard and Chris Evans with the fig-leaf they need to adopt large parts of the Coalition's policy on unauthorised boat arrivals.

Of course the answer you get from an expert panel will depend very much on the question you ask.  This one was asked a number of questions, but the two pertinent ones were as follows.

"....how best to prevent asylum seekers risking their lives by travelling to Australia by boat;" and

"...the development of an inter-related set of proposals in support of asylum seeker issues, given Australia’s right to maintain its borders;"  (with my italics)

Their answer is that if you want to stop people coming to Australia by boat, you need to ensure that they get no benefit from doing so.  To acheive this the panel has made 22 recommendations.  The key ones for immediate implementation are:
  • re-opening the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island and diverting boart arrivals there, rather than allowing them to be processed in Australia
  • continuing to pursue the deal with Malaysia on the same basis
  • once they are sent to these third countries, ensuring that their application for asylum is not processed any faster than it would have been in the country they left and removing their rights of appeal in the Australian court system
  • if they are eventually allowed into Australia, denying them any access to family reunion provisions.
These recommendations provide the next step in the ratchetting up of the cycle of deterrence which has been going on in asylum seeker policy for the past 15 years.  Each surge of boats leads to calls for tougher treatment of boat arrivals, to which governments eventually accede in the face of burgeoning numbers in detention centres.  Arrivals may slow for a while, before picking up again and leading to calls for still tougher responses.

Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the recent comments by Alexander Downer, who as Foreign Minister in the Howard Government was one of the key architects and defenders of the first edition of the Pacific Solution.  Downer diplomatically expresses his "discomfort" with the idea that people will be detained for long periods on Nauru or Manus. 

"Why would they want to keep them there for years on end? We processed offshore but there was no deliberate attempt to slow the process down.  I can't see why it would take years on end....I have some worries about that. I feel uncomfortable about that."

The Gillard government, following "expert" recommendations, is going further than the Howard government ever did.  It is proposing to detain people for longer, reduce their rights further, and in general make their lives worse.  Maybe it will work, maybe it won't.  The secret to success is to make seeking asylum in Australia no better, and perhaps a little worse, than life in their first places of refuge.  We are making countries that provide no legal recognition of asylum seekers our benchmark, and ensuring our policies mirror theirs.  We are racing towards the bottom at an alarming rate.

What I think is wrong here is the definition of "success" - success equals stopping boat arrivals.  This will be convenient for Australian immigration authorities.  Instead of having to deal with chaotic, unplanned demands for processing of asylum seekers, they will be able to delegate this chaos to other countries and maintain an orderly, regular system of arrivals into Australia.  Our immigration system will be nice and tidy. 

The lives of the asylum seekers, on the other hand, will continue to be chaotic and dangerous.  They will be stuck in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, which have not signed the UN Refugee Convention (unlike Australia which has signed it and is now trying to find a way to circumvent it), where they will either be imprisoned indefinitely, or eke out a meagre living in the grey economy while they wait for a nice tidy convention signatory like Australia to accept them.  In the meantime we will forlornly continue to negotiate with these countries for some as yet undefined regional solution to the problem. 

Eventually they will get desperate, and our orderly shores will once again look attractive.  When that happens, what will be the next step in the cycle of deterrence?  Housing them on desert islands, or flotillas in the open ocean?  Forcing them to break rocks in the tropical sun in exchange for food? 

There is a small silver lining in this looming cloud.  The number of "orderly" arrivals is to be increased - from the current 14,000 to 20,000 immediately and up to 27,000 within five years.  At least the panel found room for one humanitarian initiative amidst the deterrence. 

It's a drop in the ocean of 10 million offically recognised refugees worldwide.  On this evening's news I heard that two million Congolese are now displaced in Rwanda as a result of the latest rounds of civil war there.  Is our definition of success that we should be free to pretend these things are not happening?

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