The asylum policies of the Coalition are not only cruel, they are unworkable. Let’s examine them.

The Coalition  wants to re-introduce Temporary Protection Visas. More than 8000 TPVs were issued to people who came to Australia by boat — most of whom went on to be granted permanent protection visas. It did not stop boats — in fact the evidence shows that more people got onto boats once this visa class was introduced with more than 6000 coming in 2001.

But it did change who was coming — because of the punitive condition placed on the TPV particularly keeping families apart, the demographics of who got onto boats changed from single men to more women and children. Just under 25% of arrivals in 2001 were children compared to some 6% before the TPV was introduced. And the result? Overcrowded boats and tragedies.

The Coalition wants to turn back the boats — but to where? To Indonesia, which is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention. Last time it was clear that a boat could not be turned away if it was a direct arrival, such as the boat that arrived with Papuans from Indonesia. First flight is a non-negotiable principle of international refugee law. The hypocrisy to argue against Malaysia where safeguards have been guaranteed and supported by UNHCR while prosecuting a policy of “turning boats around” is spectacular.

What has not been explained is how this could be done with safety. The evidence is clear that boats were scuttled to avoid tow back. Desperate people will do desperate things. The Fraser government considered push backs but rejected it. It concluded that to  turn boats back would brand Australia as a “pariah” nation in our region

And finally re-open Nauru? And what would that achieve — a circuitous boat ride via Christmas Island and Nauru to eventually being resettled in Australia. Nauru is the real dud. We have repeatedly pointed out that while Tampa/Nauru did stop the boats, asylum seekers continued to come by air at the rate of about 4000 per annum. The trend of arrivals to Australia in the Howard years followed very closely the trend of arrivals to OECD counties.

What we did in Australia had only a marginal effect. Further, the secretary of DIAC has told the Senate that the meagre benefits of Tampa/Nauru cannot be repeated. People smugglers and asylum seekers now know that of the 1637 asylum seekers sent to Nauru and found to be refugees all but 45 finished up in Australia or New Zealand. Nauru was a remote island prison. It can never be part of a regional solution.

UNHCR has as recently as today, restated its willingness to work with Malaysia and Australia on the Malaysian arrangement. It does not support Nauru. Could anything be clearer?

The Greens continue with their purist policy by opposing the Malaysian arrangement. It is an impotent policy that guarantees more tragedies. The Greens have a great deal to answer for in their earlier policy purity on climate change. As Voltaire put it, “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. In voting down the Oakeshott bill in the Senate last week, the Greens have become accomplices of the Coalition on asylum policy, just as they did earlier on climate change.

As a result of the High Court decision at the end of August last year, which struck down the Malaysian arrangement, asylum seekers arriving by boat rose from about 250 to 900 per month and many deaths.

The Malaysian arrangement is not perfect, but supported by the UNHCR, it is a start. Done well, it could be the start of a meaningful and sustainable regional co-operation model. We should go many steps further and work with Indonesia in addressing the poverty of the fishing villages from where crew are recruited by the smugglers. All that many of the crew are seeking is to lift their families out of poverty and get an education for their children.

Why do we leave it to the smugglers to finance these aspirations and not do more to work with Indonesia to address these basic aspirations of people? We need a strategic diplomatic focus on building relations with Indonesia on more than live cattle and drug runners. The UNHCR operations in Indonesia should be substantially increased. Perhaps we could start with Indonesia as the co-chair of the Bali process to initiate a genuine dialogue to have a reprocessing centre established in the region.

Scott Morrison raises objections to the Malaysian arrangement because he says the numbers are too small and already over subscribed, that there are exceptions to who will be transferred. At each turn he finds another problem. That is the luxury of opposition. The fact is that the opposition wants the boats to continue. It believes that boat arrivals are a political winner. As a “senior Liberal Party strategist” told the US Embassy in 2009, “the more boats that come the better”. Who was that senior Liberal Party strategist?

Only last week, Morrison said on the ABC’s 7.30 that even if the government adopted the Coalition’s Nauru proposals in their entirety, they could not confirm its support. He continues t0 demonise asylum seekers — they “bring disease … wads of  cash … and large displays of  jewellery”. Surely we are a better country than this. Where is there any sense of charity “to set the downtrodden free”?

Here are some suggestions. Stop saying it is not the government’s problem — it is a concern for all of us. We need orderly departure programs with refugee source countries such as Afghanistan to provide an alternative to risky boat voyages. The government has been quite dilatory on such issues. Under the ODP with Vietnam in 1982, some 100,000 people came to Australia

Stop trashing our regional partners — let’s work with them to find a solution. Malaysia’s treatment of asylum seekers is far superior to some countries that have signed the Refugee Convention, e.g. China and Papua New Guinea.

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the people who seek sanctuary. Who of us would sit still as our family’s safety is in danger, as war threatened our very existence and we were being targeted by our own government?

But what ever we do with source or transit countries desperate asylum seekers will not necessarily abide by “our rules” It will always be messy.

*John Menadue was a former secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs in 1983. Arja Keski Nummi was a former first assistant secretary of the Refugee, Humanitarian and International division in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship from 2007-2010.