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Pacific Solution #2 sparks humanitarian concerns

However much the debate over irregular boat arrivals has been refocused by the shocking loss of life at sea, it is plain that domestic politics continue to motivate the main players.

Australians’ paroxysmal concern with refugee boats is potent electoral poison. The report by the expert panel on asylum seekers has provided the government with a face-saving measure to renege on its electoral promise not to re-open processing centres on Nauru or PNG, while encouraging the opposition to smugly assert that its policies have been given the green light. It just remains to be seen whether the opposition really does want to “stop the boats”:  for it, the boats are an electoral blessing that facilitates a discourse on government neglect and incompetence.

In our view, the most positive aspects of the panel’s report highlight the need to address issues around irregular maritime arrivals at source. The report acknowledges that no asylum seeker would risk their life at sea if a viable, orderly and speedy path to resettlement were available. This is why the panel recommends an immediate increase in the number of refugee resettlement places to 20,000 a year, increasing to 27,000 over the next five years, and greater use of visas under the family migration category.

The panel also criticises the practice of corralling family migration for refugees within the humanitarian program, where less than 800 places were allocated to split families last year. At this rate, the current backlog of 20,000 applications creates real incentives for family members to resort to people smugglers: the “legal pipeline” implies a wait of more than 20 years. The panel sensibly rejects the use of push-back operations because of the serious risks they raise for the safety of life at sea, and their potential violation of Australia’s international legal obligations.

Unfortunately, alongside these prudent conclusions is the panel’s recommendation to reopen offshore processing centres in Nauru and PNG — and without delay. This is concerning for humanitarian and practical reasons. The Pacific Solution was notorious for its violations of human rights law (including the detrimental mental health impacts of indefinite detention), its exorbitant cost, and the fact that the majority of people found to be refugees were ultimately resettled in Australia because other countries viewed the issue as Australia’s responsibility.

There is nothing in the report that explains why the panel believes it will be any different this time around. Indeed, its suggestion that asylum seekers sent to Nauru or PNG should have to wait for resettlement — for as long as they would if processed through “camps” — creates inherent uncertainties. This appears to sanction the very type of warehousing that often prompts refugees to seek asylum using irregular means. The billion dollar price tag (for accommodating 1500 [+PNG] asylum seekers) far exceeds the price of resettling an additional 6250 refugees in Australia each year. In our view, this is a futile gesture and a complete waste of money.

The real problem for the government is that, this time around, it is highly unlikely that a “quick fix solution” can be found to stop the flow of boats to Australia, at least in the longer term. The opposition’s assertions that it has “the solution” are a hollow boast — a fact that may make it reluctant to co-operate even if the government were to call its bluff by adopting all of its policies.

The thing is that refugees today are more savvy and connected than they have ever been. The vast majority of “our” asylum seekers come because they have existing connections in Australia. The internet and mobile phones have increased awareness of the likely effect of policies — and of refugee law as a protective option. This reality is apparent in the surge of boat arrivals triggered by the formation of the expert panel. While the frantic politicking in Australia may be pushed by the smugglers as a “now or never” play to their clients in Indonesia, it does not follow that re-opening Nauru will halt the flow.

The panel’s endorsement of the creation of a regional processing centre/s in south-east Asia has much to recommend it — as a longer-term objective. It will take time to build the necessary legal and practical foundations to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers can access meaningful protection, including durable solutions, within the region. Any such processing centre should not be a place where Australia dumps its unwanted boat arrivals, but rather a safe haven where asylum seekers can have their claims assessed while living in humane conditions, and ultimately be resettled, integrated into the local community, or voluntarily returned home. Essential to the success of such an initiative is speedy processing and prompt resettlement.

Our enduring concern is that humanitarian pretexts are being used to justify ineffective and inhumane policies that ride roughshod over the obligations Australia has assumed under international law. The plain truth is that most of the countries in Australia’s region provide scant protection for refugees. While there is much to commend efforts to build capacity in this part of the world, the relatively few people who come to us in search of protection are by rights “our” problem and should remain Australia’s responsibility.

When all’s said and done, the expert panel’s recommendations are disappointingly regressive and lacking in vision and imagination. It is, indeed, a case of back to the future for a country that seems incapable of learning from its past.

*Mary Crock is a professor of public law at the University of Sydney; Daniel Ghezelbash is an adjunct lecturer and PhD candidate at the University of Sydney; Jane McAdam is a professor of international refugee law at UNSW

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  • 1
    Rui Santos
    Posted Tuesday, 14 August 2012 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Surely with due respect, when it is all said and done wasn’t the whole point of establishing an ‘expert” panel to provide the government with a mechanism to deliver the regressive and absurd policy ‘solution” it has been seeking for years to enable it to compete against the opposition for the hearts and minds of the moronic majority that scream loudest to “stop the boats”? I mean Crikey …. disappointed? really?

  • 2
    CML
    Posted Tuesday, 14 August 2012 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    Maybe I’m cynical, but I think there is a medium term agenda here.
    Do the maths - there have been more than 7,000 arrivals in the first
    seven months of this year. Nauru and Manus combined will accommodate
    just under two thousand. By years end, both of these places will be full
    and then Tony the rAbbott will be laughing on the other side of his face.
    Failure +++. The Pacific solution did not, and will not, work in this day
    and age.
    The government and Julia Gillard will have the last laugh. Because all
    that will be left is the Malaysian solution. That is the only thing that
    will work in the current circumstances. You can go on all you like about
    on-shore processing etc. etc., but in the end the Australian public demand
    that we have some kind of order in this process. Personally, I also
    demand some kind of equity - one boat person for one refugee camp
    inmate to gain entry to Oz.
    And another thing - why are we giving these boat people “permanent
    residency” in our country, when the Refugee Convention does not say
    anywhere that I can find that we need to do that?? Surely some form of
    interim protection would be less appealing???

  • 3
    CML
    Posted Tuesday, 14 August 2012 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    Moderated again!
    Get a life Crikey - I have just about had a gut full of this nonsense.

  • 4
    klewso
    Posted Tuesday, 14 August 2012 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    This is “The Ultimate Solution”?
    Again - “Arbeit macht frei” - “Labor sets (you) free”.

  • 5
    Andybob
    Posted Wednesday, 15 August 2012 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    A welcome analysis. We do not have an immigration crisis. We have a crisis of leadership. Malcolm Fraser dealt with a far greater influx of refugees humanely and sensibly. The problem is that the conservatives cannot help but use xenophobia to wedge Labour. This needs to be repeatedly identified and the perpetrators shamed. The Federal govern,ent should also be doing more to help the States properly manage incoming people. There is going to be a lot more of them, especially when Bangladesh becomes inhabitable.

  • 6
    Andybob
    Posted Wednesday, 15 August 2012 at 12:09 am | Permalink

    Moderated for xenophobia ?

  • 7
    Andybob
    Posted Wednesday, 15 August 2012 at 12:09 am | Permalink

    Nup, must have been something else.

  • 8
    Steve777
    Posted Wednesday, 15 August 2012 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    AndyBob - you are right. We should always call this sort of dogwhistling for what it is. The problem is, most of the main Coalition players, especially Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison, are beyond shame.

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