It is unlikely that the bill that could revive the Malaysian agreement, which has been introduced into the Lower House, will ever get to the Senate.  While there are many things about the Malaysian agreement that are good policy that should still be supported, including resettling 4000 additional refugees, there are significant questions that arises from the failure of this bill that few people are addressing in detail.

These questions relate to the call for onshore processing and reach behind the simplicity of of this “catchphrase” to the complexity of how a robust system can be designed in the Australian context.   For all those who vote against the bill introducing changes to the Migration Act, there is a far greater challenge that will arise immediately afterwards.

How will we build an onshore system that does not permanently damage asylum seekers who will become future citizens?  How will this system maximise voluntary return for failed asylum claimants and not send them home in worse shape than they arrived?  How will we sustain community care that does not overwhelm an already-stretched housing stock that remains too limited even for Australian low-income families and the homeless?  All of these questions are pertinent to the building of an onshore processing system and yet few seem to grasp the challenges that lie ahead.

There is no doubt that a broad-based onshore processing system based on community care is possible.  Many other countries do it as has been documented by the International Detention Coalition and the Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project, both of whom have completed comprehensive reports on community care models in a range of countries.

However, Australia has a unique challenge with the bipartisan support of mandatory detention and a significant housing shortage for vulnerable people.  Contrary to many views on mandatory detention, it is not the “mandatory” part of mandatory detention that is the largest problem.  It is the long-term nature of detention that creates the damage.

In a unique piece of research released this week by the Yarra Institute, the author Tony Ward has costed the long-term health impacts of extended mandatory detention on the Australian health system.  The report demonstrates that, on plausible assumptions modelled on a Netherlands costing framework, adverse experiences in extended detention could add some $25,000 to the average lifetime health costs for each successful asylum seeker who will become a future citizen of Australia.  If the aim of an asylum processing system is to achieve good outcomes, either effective settlement or voluntary return, the long-term nature of detention is not achieving it.

In contrast, there are few people who would argue that asylum seekers arriving in Australia either by boat or plane should have a process of capturing biometric data, establishing identity and assessing risk to the community.  For those who arrive without a visa, this may take longer and so the mandatory part of this process may include a short period of time detained to undergo these checks.  In other parts of the world this is called mandatory processing, which ideally is swift, may take place in a detention centre or may take place at a reception office depending on the mode of arrival.

The real challenge for Australia is that we have had such low numbers arriving in an unauthorised way by boat compared to other countries we have been able to afford fiscally to maintain mandatory detention in an extended form.  If numbers increase, not unlike many other countries, we will be in a position where we will have to seriously review the way we receive people and process their asylum claims outside an extended mandatory context.  The cost from a human perspective as well as a financial one, will become too great.

This is not a unique challenge globally and if we do not wish to embark on a system that harms people permanently through harsh onshore measures, we are going to have to seriously think about how community care options can be expanded without leaving people in destitution, in inappropriate housing or in competition for housing with vulnerable Australians.  This may include the need for investment in community-based infrastructure or strategic partnerships with state governments to create additional housing stock that may be shared with transitional housing or other forms of care.

Whatever the creative solutions that arise, there is scant detail or imagination about this from those who have called for onshore processing. If this bill does fail, it is going to take a lot of support and encouragement from all those who voted against it, and all those who called for its demise, to input into what should be a far better reception model for asylum seekers onshore than we have had for a very long time.

*Caz Coleman is a member of the Council for Immigration Services and Status Resolution, advising the federal minister for Immigration and the Detention Health Advisory Group. Opinions expressed are her own.

Peter Fray

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