On August 26, 2001, MV Tampa rescued 438 asylum seekers from their distressed vessel Palapa 1. Since then Australia’s asylum policy has been a tale of human tragedy, political opportunism, policy failure and great cost. Today’s stalemate around our treatment of asylum seekers and refugees represents one of this country’s greatest moral failures.

Here are some proposals, outlined in a report released yesterday by the Centre for Policy Development, on a way to break the impasse that has strangled our ability to move towards principled and effective responses. The report, entitled A New Approach, finds five main areas for tangible policy progress.

First, we must get a better balance between the human rights of vulnerable and powerless refugees, and the legitimate concerns for border security. In a highly politicised debate, security fears and border protection win every time. Unfortunately, the cries for help from the victims of war, violence and persecution have been drowned out. We must separate those overseeing refugee protections from decision making on national security. We can process asylum seekers humanely and efficiently without jeopardising national security. To cast this as an “either/or choice” is not only a gross over-simplification but also an insult to our capacity as a nation to address this complex issue.

We recommend:

  • Establishing an independent and professional commission, with a small secretariat and budget, to facilitate informed public debate.
  • Establishing an independent Refugee, Asylum and Humanitarian Assistance Authority to administer the policy that falls under Australia’s offshore and onshore humanitarian programs, underpinned by legislation that clearly articulates the values, principles and objectives of Australia’s refugee and asylum policies.

Second, we must draw on our experiences in building improved regional solidarity and co-operation. Not surprisingly, regional countries often see Australia as fair-weather friends, turning to them when we have a problem, but ignoring their much larger problems with asylum seekers and refugees.

Having only recently shed White Australia, we often seem very self-righteous in the eyes of regional people. We are not good at seeing ourselves the way that others often see us. Governments and NGOs in the region must all be actively involved.

We recommend:

  • Supporting the establishment of a well-resourced policy unit within the Bali Process Secretariat to work with regional governments and civil society organisations in developing the key elements of a regional cooperation and protection framework and:
  • Work towards sustainable and practical protection outcomes in the region,
  • Scope out the development of common or complementary protection systems for asylum seekers in the region.
  • Develop and implement strategies addressing the humanitarian dimensions of displacement, providing practical support arrangements for displaced people in transit, and working towards lasting solutions.

Third, we should phase out mandatory detention completely within two years and release all children and their carers from detention by Christmas this year. We should be robustly protecting children rather than punishing them as we do at the moment. Mandatory processing and checking of asylum seekers will of course have to be maintained, but it can and must be dramatically sped up.

Here are the facts. Indefinite mandatory detention costs over $1 billion per annum. It inflicts trauma and triggers mental disorders. It breaches human rights. And it is quite clear it does not deter asylum seekers. There is no evidence anywhere in the world that it does. It is a costly failure.

We recommend:

  • Phasing out mandatory detention within two years, transitioning to a risk-based detention policy for all asylum seekers regardless of their manner of arrival and including currently excised locations. This will end the prolonged use of Christmas Island and involve a repeal of the excision laws.
  • Use detention specifically for mandatory health, identity and security checks, with a 30-day time limit for adults (with additional detention on judicial order) and a 14-day time limit for children.
  • Refocus the legal framework for detention to match the mainstream legal framework for all other forms of detention in Australia.
  • Create new accommodation centres with greater flexibility for people who present ongoing security concerns or require intensive social support. These should be in urban or regional hub locations for ease of service delivery, better oversight and reduced cost.
  • Appoint an independent child guardian for unaccompanied minors in the immigration regime.
  • Release all children (and their carers) from mandatory detention before the end of 2011.

Fourth, to address regional bottlenecks at the source within our region, we need to substantially increase our humanitarian and refugee intake within five years, and de-link the onshore and offshore component. This will also go some way towards nullifying concerns that asylum seekers (especially those who arrive by boat) “jump the queue”. About 5000 places in the Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) have become de facto family-reunion places. The SHP should revert to assisting people “in-country” who face discrimination, for example Tamils in Sri Lanka and Copts in Egypt.

We recommend:

  • Revising the refugee referral and selection policies and practices with the unity of the surviving family as a priority for resettlement.
  • Work with UNHCR to re-prioritise referred refugee resettlement, to:
  • Address durable solutions for protracted refugee situations in the region,
  • Respond to the growing issue of internal displacement through the strategic use (where appropriate) of the In-country Special Humanitarian Program
  • Increase our annual refugee intake from 14,750 to 20,000 by 2016. As a first step towards this target de-link the counting of asylum numbers in Australia from the offshore resettlement program.

Fifth, if detention becomes a policy of last resort, reserved only for those asylum seekers where community safety and security is deemed to be an issue, the savings realised can be re-directed. We can harness them to ensure resettled refugees are able to more quickly become productive members of the Australian community.

We recommend:

  • Re-allocating most of the savings from reform of detention policies to priority settlement services particularly English language programs and youth support services.

New policies are needed. People movement and displacement continues to grow. And it is shifting towards our region. Last year, nearly half of all the world’s asylum claims were from people in Asia (45%). It is also a fact that asylum seekers overwhelmingly look for protection in their region of origin. We had better get used to it and plan accordingly. There is no future in putting our head in the sand.

We must safeguard Australia’s national interest by ensuring that the claims of refugees and asylum seekers to Australia’s protection are considered rigorously but with compassion. By adopting such measures, good policy can make good politics, as Malcolm Fraser showed in the 1970s and ’80s.

John Menadue is the former secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (1980-83), and a co-author of A New Approach: Breaking the Stalemate on Refugees and Asylum Seekers by the Centre for Policy Development. Download a full copy of the report here.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey