There is something very cynical about the way our political system works to try to persuade us that if something is said often enough as one-liners, then it must be true. So it is with the fiction that processing asylum seekers in Nauru makes sense. The secretary of DIAC told a Senate committee last October that even the meagre benefits of Nauru processing in the past could not be repeated.

When the Coalition says that it would not support the government in amending the Migration Act to return it to the “pre High Court understandings”, it effectively signalled that it was OK to try to come by boat. The scuttling of the Malaysian arrangement has given oxygen to the people smugglers. This largely accounts for the considerable increase in boat arrivals in recent months. It was quite predictable. In the March quarter this year, asylum seekers coming to Australia boat rose to 1602 compared with 935 in March last year, although asylum seekers coming by air still exceeded those coming by boat.

Tony Abbott says that asylum seekers would be mistreated in Malaysia. For him to express concern for the well-being of asylum seekers is very novel. All his slogans are designed to score political points and to demonise and dehumanise vulnerable asylum seekers. Scott Morrison plunges to the bottom of the barrel in warning us that boat arrivals are bringing disease. Last year he opposed taxpayer assistance for the relatives of persons drowned at Christmas Island to attend a funeral in Sydney.

If we follow Abbott’s argument, what he is saying is, it is not safe in Malaysia, get on a boat and make your way to Australia. Once here, we will take you to Nauru to be processed and eventually you are very likely to come to Australia.

Tampa and Nauru did confuse people smugglers for a period and boat arrivals largely stopped, but asylum seekers continued to come by air. In the past decade, more than 70% of asylum seekers came by air. What is important, however, is the total number of asylum seekers, not their mode of arrival. But our focus on boat people plays to some deep-seated xenophobia in this country, yet what we have learnt over the past six decades of refugee flows is that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”.

Almost 1600 of the 1637 asylum seekers who were sent to Nauru finished in Australia or New Zealand. The remarkably well-informed people-smugglers know quite clearly that even if asylum seekers are taken to Nauru by a Coalition government, they will very likely end up in Australia.

The Nauru solution cost more than $1 billion over five years. There was also enormous long-lasting mental trauma. The Coalition proposes to repeat it.

The recent utterances of the Coalition, particularly on Nauru and turning boats around at sea, is clearly causing concern in regional governments, particularly in Indonesia. While Malaysia’s record may not be exemplary, neither is ours. We lock up boat people for no crime but asking for our help. Countries such as Malaysia that the Coalition criticises are at least starting the difficult process of building a refugee protection system. They must be supported.

In dealing with our region we are fair-weather friends, turning to the region when we have a problem and then walking away or losing interest. We use our political capital in Indonesia on behalf of Australian cattle and are then surprised when Indonesian leaders and officials are not sympathetic to us, a rich country and with a number of boat arrivals that is minuscule in world terms.

As we said in the Centre for Policy Development’s published report A New Approach, our region has moved a long way in the past 10 years. ASEAN is developing a human rights instrument, something that Australia has refused to do despite the Brennan enquiry. The arrangement Australia negotiated with Malaysia and supported by UNHCR established for the first time in Malaysia a clear distinction between asylum seekers and illegals, which would have given protection from arbitrary arrest. It ensured that registered asylum seekers could work and have access to some education and welfare benefits. It was very considerable progress between a refugee convention signing country and one that is not.

There can be no lasting arrangement without the co-operation of regional transit countries, particularly Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Malcolm Fraser found that in the enormous outflow from Indochina. Nauru can never be part of a regional arrangement. It is not a transit country.

But the Coalition does not want to build a regional arrangement that will discourage people taking to boats. Boat arrivals are political manna from heaven. Statements by Abbott and Morrison are entirely consistent with the statement by a senior “Liberal Party strategist” to the US Embassy In November 2009 as reported in WikiLeaks, that “the more boats that come the better”. That is clearly the opportunist approach that the Coalition takes rather than acting in the national interest or helping protect asylum seekers escaping war, torture, r-pe and persecution.

Rob Oakeshott spelled out clearly last week the cynicism of the Coalition’s approach “the Coalition wants the boats to keep coming to inflict maximum damage on the government”. Morrison has said that “it is not the opposition’s job to fix the problem”. He sees his role to politically exploit the problem rather than promote the national interest or help extremely vulnerable people.

We need to build co-operative relations with refugee source countries such as Afghanistan in orderly departure programs and with transit countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. There is no other way. Nauru is no answer at all. The evidence is clear that the Coalition wants the boats to continue. It clings to the Nauru fallacy.

But even if we can develop sound long-term arrangement with source and transit countries, some desperate people will always take great risks to come through irregular channels. That is the nature of refugee flows.

Australia has a proud record in successfully settling 750,000 refugees since WWII. They have been great settlers. We can continue that success if only we can overcome what Malcolm Fraser referred to earlier this month as “the disgraceful race to the bottom of populist political point-scoring”.

*John Menadue is a Centre for Policy Development fellow and former secretary of the Department of Immigration from 1980-1983. Arja Keski-Nummi is a Centre for Policy Development fellow and a former first assistant secretary of the Refugee and Humanitarian and International Division of DIAC in 2007-2010.

Peter Fray

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