Here we are right back where we were a year ago on asylum seekers. Boats foundering en route to Australia, mass drownings, and a spike in the number of people trying to reach Australian territory by boat.

Four hundred and thirty four, to be exact. That was the number of people who reached Australia in December 2010. That’s how many have reached Australia so far in December 2011. The latter number will most likely rise before the year ends.

The most awful number, that of the drowned, will never be known.

Nonetheless, things aren’t quite the same as 2010. That year saw the last stages of a surge in refugees in our region that pushed up dramatically the numbers of asylum seekers heading for Australia under the Rudd government. It began tailing off from late 2010 and this year saw a significant drop. This is the comparison:

Maritime asylum seeker arrivals 2010-11

This year, there have been 3330 arrivals, compared to 5930 in 2011, according to the numbers issued by the Minister for Home Affairs every time a boat is intercepted. Establishing whether the failure of the Malaysia processing agreement — struck down by the High Court on August 31 — has had a material effect on arrivals is thus difficult to determine.

The surge in arrivals after September matched, though remained lower than, the increase for the same period in 2010, until December. Now, however, the numbers are in alignment — numbers are returning to 2010 levels, though it’s only once we see regional and global asylum seeker numbers from the UNHCR for the second half of this year that we’ll be able to satisfactorily determine the extent to which numbers heading to Australia have defied regional trends. That is, the extent to which overall “push” factors have influenced any “pull” factors that might be at work.

Nonetheless, pending further evidence, there appears to be a case for the argument that the high-profile failure of the Malaysian solution has indeed prompted a rise back to 2010 levels.

Opinion now seems to be shifting to recognise that, to the extent that if the Australian government can take action to deter people from risking their lives, it should. Plainly the current policy, however humane, doesn’t work. Mandatory detention has lost whatever deterrent value it once had, and is now merely a costly burden on taxpayers. Temporary protection visas, as proposed by the Coalition, are demonstrated not merely to not work at deterring asylum seekers, but attract the families of those already here.

Offshore processing without some form of international or regional framework — as at Christmas Island or Nauru — merely delays the arrival of asylum seekers at a destination such as Australia or New Zealand, and they know it.

The policy cupboard is bare. The only viable option is offshore processing under a regional agreement that means asylum seekers have no guarantee of reaching Australia. Coupled with a significant rise in our refugee intake to more than 20,000 a year — we’re one of the world’s richest countries, when most of the developed world is struggling economically; we can afford it — would be the most humanitarian policy (that also happens to be the one Chris Bowen took to the ALP conference).

Insistence on onshore processing is a non-policy. It substitutes personal morality for public morality, and fails to recognise that when governments act, there are impacts far beyond those immediately advantaged or disadvantaged in a way that is never the case with individual actions.

The onus now is on the coalition. Tony Abbott has been caught out. Rejecting the government’s offer of discussions on offshore processing looks like the most childish form of the negativism for which he is renowned; unexpectedly, a major tragedy has put the focus on the need for a solution to the issue just when Abbott was persisting in playing politics with it. A failure to agree a concrete policy that has a realistic chance of deterring people from risking their lives while fulfilling our humanitarian obligations isn’t merely a policy or a political failure, it will be a moral failure.

Peter Fray

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