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Dec 7, 2012

Left disconnected from reality on asylum seekers

The growing disconnection between progressive and most voters on asylum seekers is driven by the Left's refusal to accept there are consequences to government policy.


On Monday Crikey provided the results from an Essential Report question about how people viewed Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott on the issue of asylum seekers. There were some contradictory aspects to the results: voters didn’t think either leader was “fair” on the issue but also declined to describe them as “cruel”.

What did come through, however, was the view of many, primarily on the Left, that the government’s revival of the Pacific Solution is a blot on Australia’s human rights reputation isn’t shared at all by voters. Not merely did only 5% of voters describe Julia Gillard as “cruel” on the issue, only 6% described her as “too hard” and 32% described her as “too soft”.

When I tweeted some of those results, the response of some was to dismiss it as evidence of the irredeemable racism of Australians. Plainly there is a disconnection between refugee advocates, the Greens, and many progressives, and the great majority of voters, over the issue. Some 94% of Essential’s balanced pool of voters cannot be dismissed as “western Sydney”, certainly not by anyone who is actually interested in influencing policy rather than enjoying a warm inner glow while occupying the high moral ground.

The disconnect will grow, driven by the current surge in illegal immigrants from Sri Lanka. The vast majority of these arrivals are manifestly not asylum seekers. They will, however, undermine whatever remaining community sentiment exists in support of genuine asylum seekers. That’s what waves of illegal economic migrants do: they antagonise the community and drive politicians to dramatically tighten immigration processes.

We got mandatory detention and a significant tightening of the refugee assessment from the Keating government in response to a wave of illegal immigrants from southern China, many of whom tried to game the humanitarian visa application system. Now this government is working on a high-rotation policy to send back Sri Lankans as quickly as possible. More than 600 have been dispatched so far.

The response of many on the Left, and from refugee advocates, has been to try to convert arriving Sri Lankans into automatic asylum seekers. In a truly bizarre piece for Crikey yesterday, former diplomat Bruce Haigh claimed Australia was complicit in the genocide of Tamils by the Sri Lankan government. By Haigh’s logic, anyone arriving from Sri Lanka is automatically entitled to asylum, even if they don’t claim it — if they’re Tamil, because they’re an oppressed minority; if they’re Sinhalese, because it’s an abusive government.

No one doubts the Sri Lankan government is responsible for ongoing human rights abuses — well, except that government — but that doesn’t automatically make citizens of that country entitled to asylum here, any more than every Chinese citizen is entitled to asylum because the Chinese Communist party is one of the world’s most murderous and brutal dictatorships. That’s certainly not what the UN Refugee Convention, which refers to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted”, says.

Remarkably, Haigh appeared to complain that “former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been returned”. Was Haigh suggesting Australia should give sanctuary to individuals responsible for some of the most appalling terrorist atrocities of recent decades? Or merely that, having started and then lost a long-running civil war, all Tamils are therefore automatically entitled to asylum?

“It is this unwillingness to consider consequences that prevents the Left from effectively participating in the debate and, thus, wringing its collective hands when the extent of voter antipathy toward asylum seekers is demonstrated.”

Haigh’s piece displayed one of the ongoing characteristics of the Left’s response on asylum seekers: an inability to distinguish between what is moral and right for an individual to do and what is the best outcome, in moral terms, for governments to pursue. Individual actions have limited consequences, but government policies can have far-reaching consequences including, in this case, encouraging both genuine asylum seekers and those who would game the system for economic advantage, like those coming from Sri Lanka, to risk their lives trying to reach Australia.

It is this unwillingness to consider consequences that prevents the Left from effectively participating in the debate and, thus, wringing its collective hands when the extent of voter antipathy toward asylum seekers is demonstrated. And some consideration of consequences by the Greens would not have gone astray when they voted down the government’s “Malaysian Solution” legislation, opening the way to a return to a more barbaric, and less effective, Pacific Solution.

I’ve been accused on several occasions of substituting utilitarianism for morality on this issue, which begs the question: what should governments do instead? Should a government make a decision that benefits one individual or group, knowing it may have lethal consequences for others? Where’s the morality in acting in a way that you know increases the risk that people may die?

At this point, some fall back on insisting we should fulfil our obligations under the Refugee Convention. Putting aside the fact the claim Australia has breached its international obligations is bandied around far more often than it is ever actually demonstrated, this substitutes adherence to a treaty for hard decision-making. Mere adherence to a treaty doesn’t make a policy any more or less moral; there’s certainly no morality in a policy that leads to drownings while observing the nuances of the UN Refugee Convention.

One refugee advocate who has attempted to move the issue forward is Julian Burnside, who put forward a four-point plan to overhaul the processing of asylum seekers. His proposal has some implementation issues, particularly around the idea of keeping asylum seekers in regional Australia, given the likely lack of community and support services and economic opportunities, but nonetheless it demonstrates Burnside is wise to the need to put forward workable alternatives rather than adopting what might be called the Ian Rintoul approach of reflexively criticising anything and everything short of an open-borders policy.

If more progressives dismayed by what we’re doing on asylum seekers copied Burnside and actually tried to grapple with policy solutions rather than demonising efforts to impose some basic rules on our processes, the disconnect with the majority of voters might start to diminish.

Chris Bowen, meanwhile, is stuck with having to navigate a path between the outright racism of the Coalition, which advocates policies demonstrated to place lives at risk, and the wilful refusal of progressives to accept that policy is more complicated than simply throwing open our borders because it’s the moral thing to do at a personal level. He’s also stuck with the task of trying to do the right thing by genuine asylum seekers, more of whom will be welcomed to Australia on his watch than ever before, and illegal immigrants trying to game the system.



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56 thoughts on “Left disconnected from reality on asylum seekers

  1. Jenny Haines

    Bernard – I usually like your articles but on this one you have fallen into the usual journalistic trap of labelling opposition to the government as coming from the Left.Inside the Labor Party, Labor for Refugees is supported by the Right and the Left of the party.That is how Labor for Refugees got progressive reforms through the National Conference of the party, cross factional support. Dont hold your breath waiting for leading Left figures in the ALP to criticise Gillard and Bowen on refugees and asylum seekers. They have been remarkably mute.

    Of course there is not majority support in the community for the recognition of the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers, however they arrive. This is Australia, remember! Fraser faced down this opposition when he flew the Vietnamese to Australia against the popular sentiment at the time but we don’t have that sort of leadership in our parliament any more. They follow the polls and the focus groups now, they don’t lead.

    I don’t think anyone is asking for automatic recognition of any group of asylum seekers. What Labor for Refugees wants is fair processing so that all asylum seekers get a fair go with DIAC. What has been happening in most recent times is pure refoulement, contrary to the Refugee Convention, and contrary to any sense of fairness. On the basis of a 15 minute interview where a Sri Lankan asylum seeker is asked a set of questions guaranteed to get the answers DIAC wants,they are bundled back on a plane to Sri Lanka to face imprisonment and torture. If you think that is fair Bernard then you and I are having different conversations!

  2. Tom Makin

    well argued article. i did read Mr. Haigh’s peice and posted a few comments on it but got annoyed with the overly biased comments from the left so i did not go back to it. you might even have people who have drowned and disappear at seas trying to get to Oz, and the human rights group would blame the Sri Lankan gov for their disappearance, i’m not saying gov abuse does not exist there.

    just want to add a few things. we do need the left for check and balance to alp & libs don’t stray out too far on this issue, but it is disappointing the way they’ve been acting.

    one consequences of policy, one needs to realise that if you don’t have ‘disinecentive’ and give incentive for economic migrants to come, what will happen is that they will exhaust the resources for processing claims and clog up the system. this causes despondent for those genuine refugees waiting too long overseas that they too feel the need to get on the boat as the way out and compound the problem of more boat arrivals and drowning further.

    Ozis have difficulty in finding work at the moment, and somehow people think that economic migrants mostly with low skills and english should be automatically accepted as refugees and will be able to find work easily to support themselves without draining the welfare resource and public housing cost. the real experience is many of these new arrivals depend on welfare supports and take a few years to restart their lives. any policy decision need to look at a broad range of consequences, and look at the amount drownings in Europe and learn from it.

  3. CML

    A thousand times, thank you, Bernard. What a delight to have a rational view of this very difficult issue.
    But, be prepared! You have eloquently written what I tried to say in a comment on Bruce Haigh’s article yesterday, only to be attacked (personally) for my troubles.
    This really is turning into a disaster for the whole Australian community, with such rabid division appearing. Something must be done to introduce some order here for the sake of the whole community, and the genuine refugees who need our support. Totally open borders just will not cut it!!

  4. Tom Makin

    so many mistakes in spelling and grammar. better off if i wrote it in arabic

  5. Tom Makin

    Sorry to hear that CML, i did not bother to come back to that article again

  6. Coaltopia

    Spot on: “reflexively criticising anything and everything short of an open-borders policy.”

  7. Tom Makin

    i wonder if i was attacked as well. i thought this site has good discussion but after reading the comment after mine on mr Haigh’s article i felt that i better leave it.

    good sense, turns out poor CML copped the abuse.

  8. Mark Errey

    Bernard – I agree with the thrust of your article, the disconnect you see between how the majority of voters perceive this issue and how the left/greens perceive it is real. I don’t think this is helped when someone as learned, informed and insightful as yourself continues to term asylum seekers as “illegals”. This is a misused and pejorative term, it is not illegal to seek asylum, particularly if you are a minority that is being slaughtered by your own government as is the case with the Sri Lankans. We expect you to do better Bernard. Otherwise keep it up.

  9. Clytie

    “Where’s the morality in acting in a way that you know increases the risk that people may die?”

    The problem is, asylum seekers are routinely killed in their own and other countries. Since asylum seekers have no status in countries like Pakistan or Malaysia, they can be exploited and killed with impunity. They are explicitly or effectively non-persons.

    Bernard, before holding forth on these issues, you ought to talk to some Hazaras and Tamils. You don’t seem to have any idea what they have had to survive; and you would be talking to the ones who were lucky, or skilled enough, to do so.

    Asylum seeker solution #1: stop their governments persecuting them. Any protests the international community may be making to those governments appear to be ignored.

    Asylum seeker solution #2: set up orderly, effective processing in host countries. Are we doing that yet?

    Asylum seeker solution #3: treat people decently when they claim asylum. Instead, we punish them. This is counter-productive when nearly all turn out to be genuine refugees.

    Your arguments could have been used just as strongly against taking in Jewish people fleeing Europe in the 1930s. Sometimes they were, and that’s a shame we have to carry.

    However, few of us were alive back then. We’re alive now, and we are responsible for how our society treats the vulnerable and dispossessed. I will not, while there is breath in my body, allow desperate people to be exploited for political gain, and that is what is happening here.

    Our society can easily accommodate the number of asylum seekers we get each year. Heck, I live in a town of 7000 people, the poorest area in the poor state of S.A., and we have run community refugee resettlement projects. Our region is at least half NESB. Never have we regretted bringing refugees into this community: they are hard-working, devoted to their families and determined to contribute to our community.

    Involve the regions: councils, employers and community groups. Provide adequate support services, create and update plans with each group willing to be involved. Do some real data management (collect what is actually needed, and compare it directly to the relevant criterion). Work with the resources we already have, and the new resources we’ll gain through resettlement.

    Asylum seekers are a net asset to our society, and currently we’re not only wasting that asset, we’re paying billions to write it down.

  10. Mark out West


    How may time does it have to be said that there is no line. The small amount of economic migrants are part and parcel of having the refugee process.
    No one called for the abolition of the Banking system when it took us to the brink. No one closed down P*illip M+rris when their executives were shown to have lied about the deadly impact of smoking.
    The relevance is that while we on the left fight for a fairer deal for all, the right wing lemmings (please read NO SPINE) give away their rights to those psychopaths who only think about money.

    The affect of economic migrants in the process is minimal in economic terms and only significant because you have to deal the the entrenched racism in Australia. Australians love the money coming in from the rest of the world they just don’t want to be part off the problems.

  11. rohanthwaites

    You are unfair to many of the opponents of this policy to suggest that detailed alternatives have not been provided. The Refugee Council of Australia and the ASRC, along with many others, have repeatedly made workable policy suggestions similar to Burnside’s. They include recommendations for an increased resettlement intake and the improvement of processing capabilities in the Asia Pacific region

    Alternatives to prolonged mandatory detention have been regularly made. The Joint Select Committee recommended that all reasonable steps be taken to limit detention 90 days and that reasons be published for ongoing detention beyond this period – hardly the Left. So there is a wide body of opinion that sees alternatives to locking up people indefinitely on remote pacific islands and sending back asylum seekers without hearing their claims.

    Regarding the return of Sri Lankan asylum seekers, the point is that if a person seeks asylum we have an obligation to assess that claim before sending them back to their country of origin. Coming to Australia and asking for asylum does automatically make them asylum seekers – they don’t need the ‘Left’ to do that for them. Many of those who have been returned did attempt to claim asylum and were sent back anyway. The question to be determined is whether they are refugees. That can only be determined by properly hearing their claims for refugee status. Your detailed policy suggestion in relation to Sri Lankans appears to be: all Sri Lankans who arrive irregularly in Australia, even those with a well founded fear of persecution, should be sent back to Sri Lanka to face further persecution.

    Regarding the deterrence arguments that run through your piece, the policy of deterrence has clearly failed. No lives have been saved because of it, but many have been sent offshore and consigned to years of unnecessary and expensive suffering, either in the Australian community on indefinite bridging visas or offshore. They are the consequences of this government policy and they indicate that the policy fails on social, economic and humanitarian grounds.

  12. C@tmomma

    Amazing, isn’t it, that The Greens and other ‘Refugee Advocates’ prefer to advocate for the ‘Rights’ of those asylum seekers and the People Traffickers making a good living off them, who are openly abusing our system around the Humanitarian Intake of refugees, whilst at one and the same time not giving a hoot about the millions of indigent refugees in the camps fleeing real and present persecution? Because for every boat passenger asylum seeker we take, that’s one less refugee from the camps around the world we can accommodate under our 20000 cap.

    Also what Bernard is saying about the majority view of the electorate, whom politicians represent remember, is absolutely true. I was a part of an infamous ‘Focus Group’ on Monday this week, and let me tell you, asylum seekers, as they are presently arriving via People Smuggler, are as popular as a pork chop in a Synagogue. Australians simply don’t like their generosity being abused. They feel welcoming to refugees, but not those seeking to game the system.

  13. Cath Ashby

    Liked Bernard’s article. Maybe, since we are up for a Fed election next year, we should also have a referendum on whether Oz should continue being a signatory to the Refugee Convention in its current format/application, etc. That way we would know the views of the majority of Australians and what they want to support. Most of us are caring/concerned citizens but I would rather my charity donations went towards helping Australians that need a hand. Ditto for govt housing.

  14. Steve777

    The asylum seeker issue is one that has no quick and simple solutions, in spite of what we hear from the Coalition and from the Greens. The Malaysia solution might have acted as a circuit breaker last year, but we have gone beyond that now. It would be overwhelmed in a few weeks, as has been ‘Pacific Solution Mark II’.

    What we need is a negotiated framework with transit countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia and possibly others. We will need to make a major contribution to the establishment and management of processing centres in these countries. Other destination countries would ideally need to be involved, especially NZ but also Canada and the US if we could persuade them to come on board. And of course, we have to agree to take a ‘fair’ share of recognised refugees. I don’t know how many that would be.

    It would take a while to set up but what are the alternatives? Locking up people on remote islands has been proved not to work, as the government was warned before it implemented it; TPVs didn’t work; and ‘stop the boats’ is not on, as I’m sure the Opposition well and truly knows.

  15. Jack Smit

    “The vast majority of these arrivals are manifestly not asylum seekers” – WOW, Keane has done a degree in Refugee Law when I wasn’t looking, and he’s an assessment officer with authority.

    By comparison, Ian Rintoul has had a full-time engagement with refugee policy and politics for more than 15 years, while Bruce Haigh, besides knowing Sri Lanka from the inside as a diplomat, has an Immigration Department view from the inside as well from his role on the Refugee Review Tribunal. Bernard Keane, I suggest you give up writing about this policy area. Apart from bitching at what you call “the left”, all your Crikey articles about refugee policy have been as good as useless, merely adding to the carping and bitching about asylum seekers.

  16. luke weyland

    The Aussie left are those who still believe in human rights, according to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, UN Declaration on the Rights of Refugees, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child.
    In the 1970s, Liberals, Labor, National Country Party, Australia Party and the Australian Democrats all supported the rights of people to seek asylum seekers to seek refuge.
    Greens, Democrats and Socialists, like my Socialist Alliance, all continue to support human rights. However Abbott’s Liberals, Gillard’s Labor and Joyce’s Nationals do not. The latter groups support handing over refugees to Sri Lankan authorities to be tortured and killed. the latter group supports laws that currently permit those babies born of non-permament residents to he held in custody till the day they die.

  17. Eva Cox

    I think those quoting public opinion, including Bernard Keane, fail to understand seriously long-term demonising of boat arrivals, starting with TAMPA. The debate therefore is propelled by levels of hostility to the category that tangle various forms of prejudice. Were these refugees from Europe, eg Kossovo, or were allowed to come by plane, the levels of hostility would be less and rational debate could occur. The constant illegality accusations, never used for the many who arrive at airports,the somewhat hidden fears of aliens, the revival of the idea that there are floods just awaiting entry all create the current attitude gulf on all sides. The current major party responses all apply the prejudice cards and play into the long term ‘yellow brown’ horde fears. These echo in this piece.

    Turn back the real economic driven lot but don’t assume that this is the major driver. People move reluctantly and we don’t really have a numbers problems if people need refuge.

    There are alternatives that are not necessarily cruel. I’ve semi seriously suggested a market solution of competing with people smugglers by Qantas which would stop the drownings! Process them here and focus on how those who are genuine can contribute eg We absorb about 200,000 immigrants a year, plus many short term people for Rhinehart and co, why not let genuine refugees be used instead? We could handle 50,000 refugees chosen from orderly queues in Indonesia and Malaysia, maybe even Pakistan, as well as the existing camps. We claim to need more labour in difficult areas, so maybe like the Snowy scheme, refugees on fixed contracts to serve in the mining industry before their families can join them? Some are even skilled professionals but their treatment does not enhance the possibilities of retaining such skills

    I acknowledge my own biases, as a baby refugee from Hitler, one lucky enough to be accepted with my mother in the UK. So I ask that others recognise their own prejudiced, assumptions and their vulnerability to be convinced that this is a flood out of control.

    I also teach and practice questionnaire design. so I know the limits of using closed end questions to measure complex attitudes. People often give the answers they think they should, but can change views if the public debate changes.

    Rationality involved recognsing biases, because they are always there,

  18. Exactly!

    I understand the Australian Government has not been considering the claims of Sri Lankan asylum seekers but is bundling them on to planes and out of the country before a proper assessment is made. Yet Bernard seems confident to say “the vast majority of these arrivals are manifestly not asylum seekers”. Many of the other blog commentators also seem confident they are ‘gaming the system’.

    Yet how the bleep would Bernard know this? Has he sat in on the DIAC interviews and heard the claims or read the transcripts? How is he qualified to make this assertion?

    The answer is he has not and he is not.

    It seems that Bernard does not understand that Australia has an obligation under the Refugees Convention to hear the claims, and if the claimant has a well founded fear of persecution, not return the person to their persecutors. If he does not understand this and is happy to assert that the ‘vast majority of these arrivals are manifestly not asylum seekers” then there is no point in continuing to consider his foolish views.

    The fact is a lot of the rest of the world is awful and people will continue to seek asylum in Australia regardless of the policy manoeuvrings of the Government and Opposition. The only way we can stop them is to confront their boats with our gun boats and turn them back with whatever loss of life that implies. To do this lawfully we would need to rip up the Refugee Convention.

    I say: Liberals and the “great majority of voters” should get the guts to pull out of the Refugee Convention and unleash the military on the asylum seekers. If they lack the courage to do this or are fearful of the international shame this would attract, then they should just shut up.

  19. David Hand

    You can’t help it Bernard.
    By calling coalition “ra cists”, you perpetuate the moralistic, holier-than-thou, bleeding-heart pomposity that has so dominated the issue from the refugee lobby.

    You even mis-understand the technicalities of the issue that all of us on both sides of the argument accept, that asylum seekers are self-identifying and therefore cannot be “manifestly not asylum seekers”. They may be manifestly not refugees, but that is something the vast majority of the population worked out long ago.

    It’s only the Greens and their idealist friends who believe that everyone who gets on a boat is a refugee. 6% seems about right to me. Pity most of them subscribe to Crikey.

    At least the government has seen sense. I believe that Bowen’s dramatic change of mind is not fear of losing the election in western Sydney marginals but because he will be receiving powerful researched briefings from his department that we are being done over by remorseless owners of a lucrative trade using people who very reasonably want a better life for themselves and their children – something even you have finally begun to work out.

  20. Tom Makin

    i’m too lazy to argue with anyone.
    just want to repeat what i’ve said before: we need both an ‘incentive’ for people to apply and wait overseas and a ‘disincentive’ to get here by boat in order to be more effective.

    my friends from Europe know about illegal economic migrant problem that is causing trouble for them to manage refugee migrations. in some countries it is causing hostility in society. and here the states are not very happy because they are under pressure to provide the scarce housing and services resource the fed gov is placing on them with boat arrivals, much better if they plan out all the resource allocations and sustainability plan and take in many more of those who apply from overseas safely.

  21. Jan Forrester

    Bernard, thanks for your article. I agree that I am in a minority amongst my fellow-Australians on this issue and I am glad that Julian Burnside continues to approach it with creative ideas. Certain things remain: it is legal to arrive on Australian shores, by boat or plane, claim asylum and be judged against the Convention Australia has ratified. It is clear that many Australians don’t like those asylum seekers arriving by boat. The focus on boat smugglers and their ‘business model’ fascinates me. It is not new: Chinese, English, Scottish, US gold miners, Macassan trepang fishers, Japanese pearlers, Dutch and Portugese explorers have all pursued their ‘business models’here. Many stayed. Some, like the Chinese, were initially encouraged to go home. I believe Alan Renouf’s 1979 book ‘The Frightened Country’ to be basic reading for all of us. We are still frightened of the neighbourhood, let alone those those come from beyond it. Hard-headed policy pragmatism is necessary; however, political fear-mongering seems to admit we can’t deal with the complex world around us in a firm but calm manner. Asylum seekers are one manifestation of this. Peter Hartcher’s 2007 overview of Renouf’s book is worth a read.

  22. Jan Forrester

    Having just read all current comments I appreciate the real thought that has gone into some practical solutions. And the conversational tone of most if not all posts.

  23. Draco Houston

    “Remarkably, Haigh appeared to complain that “former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been returned”. Was Haigh suggesting Australia should give sanctuary to individuals responsible for some of the most appalling terrorist atrocities of recent decades? Or merely that, having started and then lost a long-running civil war, all Tamils are therefore automatically entitled to asylum?”

    Tamils still get persecuted by the government, which would make at least some of them refugees, which is why doing speedy assessments assuming they are all terrorists doesn’t work.

    Last night’s The Drum on ABC touched on this, someone claimed they knew of at least 3 tamils who were sent back by us and were arrested and tortured. That is worrying. We have responsibilities to these people, like it or not.

  24. Michael Jones

    There’s nothing ‘realistic’ or ‘pragmatic’ about buying into a 100 Million Dollar sadistic delusion that damages our international standing and empowers the worst people in our society at the cost of the most vulnerable.

  25. klewso

    For what it’s worth I reckon Keane’s right (complain all you like, no matter what you do you’re not going to change the weather – live around it).
    Heaven help us if our prejudices were proved to be based in misinformation – what else could we have grown up with that could be wrong? There’s safety in numbers especially in a herd mentality.

    That “Left” is out of step with the majority. That doesn’t mean they are wrong – they just have to use their collective loaf to persuade others to come along. There comes a time when it feels good to stop banging your head against a brick wall, because some people seem to get off on “lost causes”. We don’t all think the same – people have to be persuaded sometimes.
    If you want to change things, lead with your head, not your heart.

    And these Sri Lankans jumping boats for an “economic miracle” are screwing it up for the rest (legitimate refugees), by perpetuating an unfavourable image that can be used by those wanting to misrepresent events, for their own ends.

  26. CML

    And still no one has answered the major question in this debate: How many people/annum will satisfy the refugee advocate industry? Until we can have that answer, then we must assume they don’t know it, and just want an open door policy. NOT ON! As I pointed out yesterday, people, including civilians, die in wars and their aftermath. We cannot possibly save everyone who is affected by war. The Tamils started the civil war in Sri Lanka, then they lost. Well they will just have to live with the consequences. As far as I am aware, the Tamils were an “invading” group from India, who thought it okay to attempt a take over part of someone else’s country. What did they expect to happen when their campaign was unsuccessful? All forgiveness and light? History says that just never happens. What the hell has this got to do with Australia????
    And, Michael Jones, I couldn’t give a sh+t about our “international standing”. All other western countries are doing the same thing – getting rid of these so called asylum seekers, by any means possible. Been to Greece or Italy lately? No country should be asked to take in ALL ARRIVALS just because they have a good story to tell.
    Get it through your head – the MAJORITY of Australians (as pointed out by Bernard), DO NOT want a “take all arrivals” policy. What most of us want is an ordered system which provides every assistance to GENUINE refugees (you know, those stuck in camps who haven’t got a bean) to settle in this country. For that we get called “rac+st” and other nasty names. Attack the problem, NOT the person.

  27. SD

    You haven’t read all of what Julian Burnside said. He said that the reason that Australians were so anti-asylum seeker is that they are lied to by politicians (ALP and Liberal) who see political advantage in playing the xenophobia card. It follows that if the Govt had the courage to tell the truth – i.e. that asylum seekers are not “illegals”, that over 90% of “boat people” are found to be genuine and that they are fleeing unimaginable horrors, attitudes would change. Therefore poll results are doing no more than reflecting back the spin and lies which are daily churned out from Canberra. Therefore don’t attach too much importance to them. BTW Bernard, I haven’t heard anyone on “the left” say that Sri Lankans are “automatically entitled to asylum”. Don’t know where you got that from. Under the Refugee Convention, asylum seekers are entitled to seek refuge and signatory countries are entitled to assess their applications.You seem remarkably confused about both asylum seekers and “the left”.

  28. Dianne Longson

    Dear Mr Keane, it seems to me that one of the key issues missing in this article is the reason why many people are anti-asylum seekers. This group, and yes it is large, believe that asylum seekers are “illegal immigrants” because that is the way the media and politicians have been describing them for years. That this is patently incorrect doesn’t seem to be a problem for you. Anyone has the right to apply for asylum and there are processes in place to assess their legitimacy. The fact that some might be illegitimate, not actually needing asylum according to the rules is irrelevant. The processes are in place precisely for the reason of weeding these out. According to your argument those who fight for the rights of asylum seekers are the ones who are out of touch rather than those who are anti-asylum seekers for the wrong reason. Pardon! This makes no sense to me. To treat all asylum seekers as “not legitimate” because some are not, is as illogical as putting all men in gaol because some are rapists! Please think about what you are writing!

  29. mattsui

    Bernard presents the hard, two party political edge of the refugee issue and takes the obvious line – I would suggest it’s the easy line for those among us lacking empathy or a concience; refugee advocates (the Greens) are asking too much and hurtring those they wish to help; the vast majority of Australians are unsympathetic anyway; the only way to nullify immigration as an election issue, is to take away the hope of those who have no voice at the polls (Bernard’s mythical “left” is going to vote green anyway).
    That’s fine if assylum seeking were a purely political issue. It’s not. The comments on this thread are proof enough. This is an issue that goes to the core of who we are as a nation. The microscopic policy differences between our two major parties in no way reflect the battle for the soul of this nation. Do we seek to mature into a balanced, caring, humane society? Is that even possible?
    Judging by some of the comments in support of BK’s article, we have a long way to go.

  30. CML

    mattsui – You are entitled to your point of view. However, only a small minority agree with you. Last time I looked Australia was a democracy, which means the majority rules. Come back and tell us all how “bad” we are when you have convinced enough people of your views, so as to constitute a majority.
    Because we disagree with you, does not make us all immature, uncaring or inhumane. I just happen to believe that allowing anybody, who turns up in a boat, entry into our country on a permanent basis is desabilising our whole society. There have been around 20,000 in the past year or so – far too many for the community to absorb on an on-going basis, and remain a united people.
    But most important, why should we allow crooks and fraudsters (AKA people smugglers) to dictate Australian government policy? I believe that if this situation continues, there will be a ground-swell of support for the government to remove Australia from the Refugee Convention completely. Then we can take the very people who need our assistance most – those who have been found to be genuine refugees by the UNHCR, have been waiting in camps for decades and have no money to pay a people smuggler. Now that would be a “balanced, caring, (and) humane society” I would be happy to support.

  31. mattsui

    Do you agree, then, that the current situation is untenable. That the current policy of our democratically elected leaders is not only failing to curb the number of boat journeys undertaken by desperate people but also playing into the hands of people smugglers (allowing them to profit from selling dangerous journeys to people)?
    If so, we agree that the democratic process has failed. It is clear that we will not be able to agree on the proper course to a rational and humane society. It is clear that Australia, while setting the standard in so many other areas of endeavour, will carry the shame of its intentional mistreatment and victimisation of asylum seekers indefinately into the future.
    Weather we agree or not is not the point. How we move forward, how we improve the situation for the benefit of the greatest amount of people – and eventually society as a whole – is the question. The way Australia treats asylum seekers of certain origins right now (especially if they come by boat) is apalling. The true left (not Bernard Keane’s political bogeyman left) are the people who still believe in a world without war or persecution. If we fail to take steps in that direction. If we fail to set an example for tomorrow’s leaders. We fail.

  32. mattsui

    P.S. 20,000 + 25,000,000 = 25,020,000. I think we can manage.

  33. David Hand

    Hey Mattsui,
    The leadership of the ALP, after starting out in such an idealistic utopean dream world so beloved by the left, has finally, after 5 painful years returned to planet Earth and the reality we live in. I’m sure you will as well one day.

    The fact that it’s not working is merely a policy problem that can and will be worked through.

    By the way, you need to multiply your 20,000 by 5, because once they are in, asylum seekers bring that many on family re-union visas by plane. That’s what all those unaccompamied minors are on the boats for. 14 year old Johnnie comes by boat and the rest arrive through Sydney Airport on humanitarian family reunion visas. Then you need to apply it to every year, so that’s 100,000 per year. Through the back door.

    Chris Bowen has finally worked this out, as have 94% of the rest of the country.

  34. mattsui

    So, that’s it, then.
    The world will never be a better place for its inhabitants, than it is right now.
    War, famine, political and religious persecution will never be things we only know of from books.
    So it’s ok for wealthy, secular, politically stable Australia to treat the less fortunate who wish to live among us like animals. To pander to undemocratic governments while they create the conditions that lead to “economic refugees” seeking a better life elsewhere.
    People bemoan the lack of vision in Australian politics. Where are the leaders that can look to the fture and say, “Yes, we can be better.”?
    They stayed at home because 94 percent of their country men were mis-informed racists?
    Or perhaps one of them is on a boat, halfway between Sumatra and Christmas island.

  35. george gally

    i don’t think Burnside is a good example. you mustn’t read him often enough – he is only a little more measured because he does work for this government and hates Tony Abbott. But he is actually just arguing for onshore processing in that piece you link – same as greens position (he supports the greens and their views). Until this new no advantage rule asylum seekers were being released into the community, but not forced to live in the country because we have been through that in so many debates before (very difficult to force someone to live in one location for many reasons and impossible to enforce). Unworkable ideas have been around for a long time. I guess you just like some people and don’t like others without interogating their history or positions. But agree generally with points you make. advocates/lawyers can make a government’s job so difficult that they look for harsher alternatives. And advocates don’t adresss essential problems in the solutions they offer – they are just happy to have the fight. Everyone in the debate is very loose with the truth – i’m sick to death of all of them. And where will all the push and shove between government and activists lead us? When both major parties agree on most policies? To tougher government action and tougher laws they will have no trouble passing if needed (and we’ll never get them back)

  36. C@tmomma

    A day later, and I am still amazed, but not surprised, to see the Green Left Lobby wasting their energy advocating for those asylum seekers who can afford to pay the People Traffickers, and not those in god-forsaken, out of mind out of sight, refugee camps around the world.

    We, as a nation, can’t afford to take all of them. So we have to choose. Also, the Green Left Lobby have yet to answer my simple question. Why should we take those who arrive by boat when for every one of them that arrives a genuine refugee in a camp gets elbowed aside?

    What makes boat-borne asylum seekers more worthy of our compassion than those taken from the camps?

    Our nation, the driest continent on Earth, cannot sustain as many as more verdant lands.

    I remember the ‘Big Australia’ debate. The electorate decided they didn’t want a ‘Big Australia’. The majority has spoken. We are a democracy and that’s how big decisions are made. Then it is for the people’s representatives in parliament to carry out those wishes. One of the consequences of that is that we should not have an ‘Open Door’ refugee policy that sees all of the millions who want to come here taken in. Hence the 20000 cap.

    Anyway, I thought the Green Left Lobby was also concerned about the environment? Well, goodbye rapidly shrinking habitat for native animals if the nation throws in the towel against the People Traffickers. As evidence has shown this week, in order to keep their business going they will lower their prices if necessary and encourage whole villages to get on board their boats.

    Also I notice not one of the Green Left Lobby, nor even ‘National Thinker’ Eva Cox(with her obvious confirmation bias, being the daughter of WW2 refugees), have tried to untie the Gordian Knot that Bernard proposed, to explain, using the reasoning they propound for us to take anyone that comes here with a good persecution story, why we should not therefore take anyone from any country that has interracial tensions that cannot be neatly resolved, or even Chinese citizens, in their millions, that have a ‘persecution story’ to tell, IF they hop on a boat or a plane and come here to seek ‘asylum’ from that ‘persecution’?

  37. Jill Baird

    To the moderator: Can you please post my comment as from “JB”?

    There is no solution to this problem.
    Many comments seem to suggest that if only “processing” can be done in a timely and humane way, the problem will be solved. Where do they go after “processing”?
    The fact is, there are millions upon millions of genuine refugees in the world. Developed countries can’t take them all.

    And CML:
    “As far as I am aware, the Tamils were an “invading” group from India, who thought it okay to attempt a take over part of someone else’s country.”
    Find out some facts before you comment. Ignorance is embarrassing.

  38. george gally

    but as for the Sri Lankan screening process, i think there are problems and it seems likely that some genuine refugees are being caught up in that (one is too many). It does need looking at. But why doesn’t anyone ever complain about it when people are screened out at our airports every day? Activists are as obsessed by boat arrivals as politicians.

    We don’t hear about how many Sri Lankans are dying on boats coming here. The boats go down in the middle of nowhere and noone knows about it. Who is going to fight for those people? Many in Sri Lanka feel they have no future without employment – perhaps our government can help – but our refugee program is not for them.

    The Houston report has many problems but they highlighted the fact that no-one has any new ideas in this area of policy. The problem i see is that no-one is willing to look at the approach they take and see how it may be contributing to the problem. The opposition wants the boats to keep coming and so do many activists.

    The warm inner glow is not confined to activists – the moral highground is more strongly claimed by those who say they are fighting for the poor african refugees who don’t have money for a boat. I don’t think either can see past their growing noses.

  39. CML

    @ JB – Don’t patronise me. The facts I used are basically correct. There are two groups of Tamils in Sri Lanka, roughly of equal numbers. They ALL came from southern India,(Tamil Nadu) are Tamil speakers (an Indian language) and Hindus. One group came to Sri Lanka in prehistoric times,(and are now seen as a native minority), the other in the time of the British occupation of India. They all see Tamil Nadu as their cultural and spiritual homeland. There has always been tensions between Tamils (those in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu) and the vast majority of the Sri Lankan population (around 80%), who are Sinhalese and Buddist. There are smaller Muslim and Christian groups. (Source: US Library of Congress). So you know better? Who is “embarrassing”?
    None of that alters what I said earlier – The Tamils (about half “recent arrivals”), as a small minority of the Sri Lankan population, tried to take over areas in the north which they inhabit. So you think it would be okay if, for example, Indonesians settled in the Kinberley and then decided to take it over and form their own country??
    No sovereign nation would countenance that. What planet are you living on?

  40. David Hand

    Do you think Australia should drop its visa regulations to allow anyone living in less advantageous places can get on a plane and relocate here?

  41. ماكين

    alp made the mistake signing swap deal with Malaysia, they might have got a good chance with the Highcrt if they signed with ThaiLand who has signed the HR convention.

    how about signing with Iran and Iraq for swap deals, they are UN signatories, great champions of human rights, that should make the greens happy. 2:1 and a few oil contracts. awesome!

  42. mattsui

    Thank you, David, for asking.
    These are the kind of absolutes that make rational discussion about real life issues impossible. No one is suggesting an “open border” policy – although freedom of movement is probably the least complianed about element of the EU experiment.
    What I (and I believe I’m not alone) am suggesting is that it really wouldn’t be difficult to step back from the current situation and ask ourselves (and more importantly, our neighbours) how we could better address the problem of unsolicited asylum seeker arrivals. All sides admit that the boats wont stop coming just because we prosecute an openly racist policy.
    Let’s look at how we can step it back to pre Howard levels of unnescessary torment (yes, I admit that Labor started mandatory detention but back then, at least it had the auora of humanity about it). Then, the money we’re wasting on detention centre in ridiculous locations can be put into programs to intercede in the people smuggling industry.
    UN guidelines exist as to who is and who is not a legitimate refugee. Assuming we follow those guidelines and interviews are carried out with the appeopriate level of scrutiny, Australians can sleep easy at night, knowing that they’re not really racist, just worried about the economy.
    We live in a country of immigrants. Ask an Indigenous person now they feel about refugees.

  43. مكينMrGibberish


  44. mattsui

    Ahem…. MY comment is awaiting moderation?

  45. مكينMrGibberish


    rational discussion and how we better address. sound nice but the greens don’t do that either. they flatly reject finding any way as ‘disincentive’ or ‘deterrence’ for people to jump on boat. in fact their policy gives a lot of incentive for people to jump on the boat. get to OZ and you’ll be given the chance quickly better than waiting overseas.

    without ‘disincentive’ and only try to take people in from Indo quickly is not enough. drownings occur regularly in Europe, and many countries are grappling to cope with illegal economic immigrants and they are watching Oz closely and trying to find new way, new policy to stop or reduce the problem. they only have free movement across the borders for EU members whose eco & pol are relatively similar.

    you say with appropriate level of scrutiny, but the fact is the refugee advocates jump up and down and protest against suggestion that we should do on ground investigations into stories of people who don’t have paper works (who make up most of boat arrivals), citing the cost involved. if we can’t investigate then it could have been me, i take a holiday in Bali, then hop on a boat to Oz, don’t carry paperworks with me, tell immigration a tragic story and pass.

    i do agree, the current number coming in is not a problem in term of immigration absorption and it is not wise to lock people up or send to Nauru. but you greens are just as guilty as the libs in driving the alp too far to the right. had you have open mind, don’t act high above all and look at the problem in Europe and tried to find some common ground with the alp on what kind of disincentive is appropriate, they would not have strayed that far to the right. you say deterrence does not work, do you see any boat people try to get to Japan or Brunei and drowning problem? also don’t spin that deterrence policy cause the increase in boat arrivals. it was sky rocketing before they introduced the new law and you people argued that it was the last minute sale before the door is closed, now you say the increase is because of the new law and deterrence does not work, if anything it has stabilised or prevented it from growing exponentially.

    it’s probably is too late now. alp is likely going to lose. and libs will cut 6,000 places for refugees and shut the door. the greens only have themselves to blame.

  46. David Hand

    The absolute question I asked about does not make rational discussion impossible. What I did was to frame the issue in a way that shows that even the bleeding heart left must confront at some point the prospect of saying no to people who would like to bring their families to live in Australia. Therefore the debate shifts to the level of arrivals at which deterrance and resistance to arrivals must occur. Because arrivals at the moment are at a manageable level within Australia’s overall immigration policy, the Green / Left shamelessly advocates an open door policy. My question succeeded in getting you to concede that there must at some point be a limit where “the problem” must be addressed.

    What is irrational is this utopean view that all boat arrivals are genuine refugees. The Green/left then extrapolate that there is a limit on the supply side; that if we let refugees in, they will stop coming or will arrive at a amangeable rate. We even had Christine Milne on Insiders recently enthusiastically saying that boat people only need to apply through the UNHCR because the Australian government was making places available for them by increasing our humanitarian intake.

    What most of Australia understands and the Green/left is in denial about is that the quantum available for boat people arrivals is truly enormous. Hundreds of millions. The refugee convention is almost certainly being rorted by economic migrants as a visa-free entry into Australia. This is most clearly demonstrated with the boat arrivals from Sri Lanka at the moment. There are over 2.2m Tamils in Sri Lanka. Start thinking about that. Then contemplate the fact that a lot of current boat people are not Tamils but Sinhalese. They’re the lot that won. There’s 18 million of them.

    While Australia’s border policy allows anonymous people to arrive by boat at Christmas Island with a story, having destroyed their documents to make it hard for DIAC officials to identify them, and then easily places them on mainland Australia with a permanent residence visa, there will be boat people, deaths at sea and a carping, self-righteous accusation from the left that 94% of australians are ra cists.

  47. David Hand

    The absolute question I asked about does not make rational discussion impossible. What I did was to frame the issue in a way that shows that even the blee ding heart left must confront at some point the prospect of saying no to people who would like to bring their famil ies to live in Austral ia. Therefore the debate shifts to the level of arrivals at which deter rance and resist ance to arrivals must occur. Because arrivals at the moment are at a manageable level within Austral ia’s overall immigration policy, the Green / Left shamelessl y advocates an open door policy. My question succeeded in getting you to concede that there must at some point be a l imit where “the problem” must be addressed.

    What is irrational is this utopean view that all boat arrivals are genuine refugees. The Green/left then extrapolate that there is a l imit on the supply side; that if we let refugees in, they will stop coming or will arrive at a amangeable rate. We even had Christine Milne on Insiders recently enthusiasticall y saying that boat people only need to appl y through the UNHCR because the Austral ian government was making places available for them by increasing our humanitarian intake.

    What most of Austral ia understands and the Green/left is in denial about is that the quantum available for boat people arrivals is truly enormous. Hundreds of mill ions. The refugee convention is almost certainl y being rorted by economic migrants as a visa-free entry into Austral ia. This is most clearly demonstrated with the boat arrivals from Sri Lanka at the moment. There are over 2.2m Tam ils in Sri Lanka. Start thinking about that. Then contemplate the fact that a lot of current boat people are not Tam ils but Sin halese. They’re the lot that won. There’s 18 mill ion of them.

    While Austral ia’s border policy allows anonymous people to arrive by boat at Christmas Island with a story, having destroyed their documents to make it hard for DIAC officials to identify them, and then easil y places them on mainland Austral ia with a permanent residence visa, there will be boat people, dea ths at sea and a carping, self-righteous accusation from the left that 94% of Austral ians are ra cists.

  48. Steve Clarke

    David Hand,

    When asking questions how large the inflow of asylum seekers could potentially become? you will find people on the left, standing on their moral high ground with their eyes closed and their ears blocked.
    It is a taboo question for refugee advocates because there are no answers to it that are both ethical and realistic.

  49. mattsui

    Keep knocking down your straw men fellas. When the boats stop coming, I’ll admit you were right.
    Unitl then you’re just treating people cruelly and wasting massive amounts of taxpayer dollars for a net negative result.
    Blaming the people who try to help others, the people who argued against the current, shameful policy is a petty salve for your consience.
    In a few years time we’ll have to resettle a couple of million Pacific Islanders who’s home will be under water.
    No doubt they’ll be arriving by boat. Get used to it.

  50. CML

    @ mattsui – Get a life! It is muach more complicated that you will admit. And stop saying the country has become “undenocratic”. 94% of people constitute a majority last time I looked. We are NOT all rac+sts either. The real rac+sts will be out on the streets (Cronulla?) in a few years time – have you thought about that? It is better not to get into that situation in the first place.
    I think the High Court has been less than helpful. Not to mention the Coalition!!! We desperately need the “Malaysian solution”, so we can start to address off-shore processing.
    Just remember – if the coalition win the next election, things can only get worse!!!!

  51. mattsui

    Read the posts. 1 use of the term undeMocratic in relation to Governments in refugee source countries. This discussion is over.

  52. JMNO

    A good article, Bernard. I would echo Steve777 comments.

    As for returning people: in a previous life, I occasionally interviewed people arriving by plane or boat in Australia ‘undocumented’.

    In some cases it is quite quick and easy to assess that the person you are interviewing does not have an asylum claim. And it is not by conducting ‘closed’ interviews or putting words into people’s mouths.

    Other cases maybe not clear or may appear to have an asylum claim. The latter two groups clearly should not be sent back without further assessment, but why put people who pretty clearly don’t have any claims through a long refugee assessment process when they are going to be refused and when there is no suggestion of a refugee circumstance back home?

  53. ian Hammond

    “illegal immigrants”?

  54. Bob the builder

    Great article. When you’re completely divorced from reality and all the barriers that are put up to claiming asylum it all sounds so easy.
    Why is what the ‘majority’ thinks somehow the last word on the merits of a policy. The ‘majority’ is against electricity privatisation, yet that doesn’t stop Mr. Keane advocating it relentlessly.

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