Bernard Keane claims, in Crikey last week, the Left is disconnected from reality and has failed to “actually … grapple with policy solutions” around refugees. This is all pretty disingenuous when he refuses to engage with anything the Left has actually argued and simply dismisses it as championing “the Ian Rintoul approach of reflexively criticising anything and everything short of an open-borders policy”.

Everyone on the Left acknowledges that we are currently in the minority on attitudes to refugees, although I’d regard the two successive Nielsen polls showing around 30% opposition to re-opening the Pacific Solution as more relevant to the current policy debate than the more general Essential polling Keane cites.

According to Keane, criticism of the government’s deportation of hundreds of recent Sri Lankan boat arrivals fails to acknowledge that the “vast majority of these arrivals are manifestly not asylum seekers”.

But he doesn’t provide a skerrick of evidence to back this up. In fact, as Fairfax reported several times last week, there is compelling evidence that the government has been dismissing Sri Lankans as “economic migrants” after perfunctory five-minute interviews, with the outcome determined in advance. One man the government was about to deport told a Tamil community representative, “I tried to tell [the official] that I am a refugee and please help me, and she said: ‘No, I am not here to hear all those stories, you are going.'”

Until last week none of those deported had any access to lawyers or independent advice. The first time lawyers and refugee advocates did get access the government was forced to back down and agree not to deport 56 Tamil arrivals. The key issue is not whether Sri Lankans are “automatically entitled” to asylum. It is that the government is refusing to even let them make asylum claims.

The most recent Immigration Department statistics show that the vast majority are most likely asylum seekers. Seventy per cent of Sri Lankans were found to be refugees on their initial assessment in 2011-12, with 82% of the rejections overturned on appeal.

Keane’s major complaint is that the Left is unwilling to consider the consequences of welcoming asylum boats, that we might encourage thousands more to come here too.

This accepts the mistaken assumption that the numbers arriving are a problem, or might start to be. This year so far about 14,000 asylum seekers have arrived by boat. This is the highest number for any one year to date. But it is still less than 8% of our overall annual migration intake. And it also happens to be almost exactly the total number of refugees (including those selected from overseas refugee camps) that Australia has accepted every year since 1996, before Chris Bowen raised the refugee intake this year to 20,000. So we are hardly being overwhelmed.

If the government abandoned its “stop the boats” mantra a higher number might make the journey. But even if numbers doubled it would still be easily manageable. Australia has never received a large number of refugees on its doorstep compared to other countries. We are far away from the rest of the world and surrounded by a huge ocean barrier. For this reason the US, Canada and European countries get many times more asylum applications than Australia.

And refugee numbers tend to ebb and flow, according to conditions in the countries people are fleeing. For instance the increase in Sri Lankan arrivals only began after the end of 2009 civil war.

Finally, what about Bowen’s claim that encouraging asylum seekers to arrive by boat forces them to risk their lives? As numerous refugee advocacy groups argued in submissions to the Houston panel, direct processing of asylum seekers in Indonesia and guaranteed resettlement here would give them an alternative to a risky boat voyage. Some asylum seekers, like those coming directly from Sri Lanka, would still need to get on boats. But as Tony Kevin has argued in Crikey, almost all of the boat disasters could have been avoided if Border Protection Command focused on safety of life at sea, rather than telling boats to return to Indonesia or leaving rescues to the woefully under-resourced Indonesian navy.

What undermines community support for the principle of asylum is the government’s response to boat arrivals, not the boat arrivals themselves. Keane’s preference for what he calls “hard decision-making” and his unwillingness to grant that Australia’s international obligations may even be being violated by the current government policy leave him increasingly isolated.

They pit him against independent voices including the UNHCR and Professor Gillian Triggs, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, who have both expressed grave concern about the Pacific Solution, and the Refugee Council of Australia, which has called for an immediate suspension of deportations to Sri Lanka. Only the most dogged supporter of current policy would choose to make light, as Keane does, of the warnings coming from these organisations. Accurately grasping both the facts and the politics is a necessary first step to achieving any kind of progress on this issue.

It is not “reality” that underlies the Labor government’s policy on refugees, as Keane seems to believe. The government has capitulated to the policy positions of the Liberals and is actively promoting xenophobia and myths about boat arrivals rather than challenging them.

As for a policy position, it is entirely realistic to return to the pre-1992 situation when there was no mandatory detention, no offshore processing and asylum seekers arriving by boat were processed while they lived in the community.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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