There is a real opportunity for change since the High Court handed down its decision in relation to the Malaysian agreement.  Conversely, we could well be heading into murky waters for the long term.  The current government is at a crossroads on asylum issues and it has a very important choice to make.  The opportunities could result in real engagement with our region on asylum and people movement issues that do not just affect Australia, but many of our neighbours.

The investment would be significant but slow and may not pay dividends for some time.  In contrast, it could choose to plug the gap of asylum movement to Australia and introduce punitive measures to try to make Australia an undesirable place to arrive. What is blatantly obvious is that politics could well get in the way of the most sensible solution.

This dilemma reminds me of a more simplistic reality I experienced while volunteering in Indonesia. Trekking in the remote parts of Bali with a health agency that serviced the most remote of villages, I recall being amazed at the lack of basic information on sanitation and water purity.  The villages upstream used the stream as a toilet, a kitchen and a bathroom, because they had no knowledge of the results of their actions.  Most of these villagers were relatively healthy despite the lack of adequate nutrition.  Downstream, the village people had no understanding of why the stream was polluted and they used it according to their needs, again as a toilet, a kitchen and bathroom with increased effects of illness. The villagers further downstream were very unwell, exhibiting many illnesses as a direct result of the pollution in the water that they too used as a toilet, a kitchen and a bathroom.

What was unfathomable to me in my Western-educated mind was why the villagers did not communicate with each other about the pollution affecting them all.  If they invested in the problems upstream, then the problems downstream would be easily assuaged.  It would surely only take collaboration to fix the problem.

Collaboration is indeed the challenge not only for those villages in Indonesia but for the various governments in our region in relation to asylum movement.  Australia is not the only country trying to deal with asylum seekers and the movement of people in general.  In effect, we are the last point of arrival as people move from their country of origin through many countries in the search for a safe place.  Perhaps ironically our “downstream” context for asylum seekers can involve mandatory long-term detention and with its effects we are witnessing mental health and subsequent self-harm, so we are hardly the healthy alternative.  Of course, those who seek our shores may not be aware of this and have the dream of a giant sanitation plant in mind.

But there are other options for Australia and the countries that harbour people along the way.  There is no doubt that working upstream is the most sensible approach to a healthy outcome for all.  Both sides of government must acknowledge that the so-called problem that Australia has, originates well beyond those who arrive on our shores by boat.  The current government’s attempt to engage Malaysia may well have been struck down by the High Court but in essence the intention was sound.  Engaging with countries in our region that are burdened the most with asylum seekers is the only way that will alleviate the flow to Australia.  In essence, investing upstream will make a significant difference downstream.

Overall, Australia must increase its quota of recognised refugees into Australia, as a country in the region that has the capacity and the resources to do so.  But we cannot ignore the burden our neighbours have in hosting a far greater number of asylum seekers than we do (92,000 or more in Malaysia alone).  In turn, we must engage and resource those countries to deal with the context they face in hosting hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers that are seeking a durable solution.

The current government has a choice to make: in investing in the upstream to achieve dividends for the downstream or to collaborate with the opposition to plug the hole introducing punitive conditions such as transfer to Nauru or the introductions of temporary protection visas and hope that it holds until something else changes.  In the end, most of us know that plugging the hole only lasts for so long.

*Caz Coleman is a member of the Council for Immigration Services and Status Resolution (CISSR).  Opinions expressed are her own.

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