Dec 11, 2012

Rintoul: challenging bipartisan myths on asylum seekers

Last week Bernard Keane slammed "the Ian Rintoul approach" to dealing with asylum seeker issues. This week, Ian Rintoul fights back.

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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28 thoughts on “Rintoul: challenging bipartisan myths on asylum seekers

  1. Jackon Taylor

    Thank you Ian,

    I greatly appreciate you countering a number of the arguments that have been mounted previously here.

    Ultimately the current approach amounts to little more than punishing protection applicants arriving by boat to scare others from doing the same.

    The cost of onshore processing would be a fraction of the cost of offshore detention.

    Finally, the number of boat arrivals over the past 20 years suggest that movements by boat into Australia are predominantly the result of push factors rather than pull factors.

    Unfortunately we lack the political leadership to tackle this difficult issue.

  2. Jenny Haines

    Well said Ian. I agree with Jackson Taylor – what we need is political leadership to tackle these issues and we don’t have it. So we have to rely on the safeguards built into our system and have the courts tell the politicians what the law, domestic and international will allow.

  3. Exactly!

    I agree with Ian Rintoul, and would add these comments.

    As soon as Bernard Keane or anyone else starts blathering about what the “Left” stands for you can stop reading, unless you want to read unsubstantiated polemic.

    But it was not until he stated the “vast majority of these arrivals are manifestly not asylum seekers” that I began to wonder about the point of the article.

    How can he know anything about the status of the recent wave of Sri Lankan arrivals? Did he sit in on the initial DIAC interviews and was he privy to the DIAC decisions? Did he audit the reviews to the Refugee Review Tribunal, the appeals to the Magistrates’ Court, the Federal Court, the Full Bench of the Federal Court, and the High Court? Did he consider the aggregate of the outcomes of the applications before spouting off about the “vast majority” of arrivals?

    Of course not.

    What then is the point of the article? Void the polemic about the “Left” and “vast majorities”, what point was Bernard trying to make exactly? Or was polemic the point?

    I may as well read the Telegraph.

  4. Moloch

    It’s terribly sad that humane approaches to people fleeing persecution are labelled by Crikey – with a Joe Macarthy like glee as ‘left wing’.

    When did compassion get outlawed for ‘mainstream’ Australians? Why didn’t I get the memo?

    Sad that a news organisation like Crikey that labels itself ‘independent’ merely follows the MSM herd down the path of hyped-up xenophobia and the demonisation of brown people.

  5. michael crook

    thank you Ian, thank your comment makers. Got it Bernard? You are way out of line. It is not ok to use human beings as toys, for whatever grubby reason.

  6. paddy

    Well said Ian. Reading Bernard’s piece the other day, had me thinking that we’d been transported back to the days of the “yellow” (now brown) peril. Good to see there are still a few voices of sanity left amidst the great panic.

  7. Michael Jones

    There’s nothing pragmatic or realistic about pandering to this kind of Fake Issue, especially since doing so is exactly what gives such fabricated outrages their power and traction.

    This is a fake issue with a massive humanitarian and financial cost- one of the worst excesses of the assertion-based community.

    That goes as much if not more for people such as Mr Keane , who engage in classic circular-reasoning: “it polls well so, you must bow to it(hence helping it poll better)”. Assertion-based, indeed.

  8. Steve Clarke

    “But even if numbers doubled it would still be easily manageable”.

    Yes I agree. However what if the numbers increased 12 fold to 180,000 per year as Senator Bob Carr has suggested or go far higher than that?

    Ian, you are basing your arguments on the assumption that the numbers of people paying to enter Australia by boat wont increase very much. Considering the many millions of refugees and millions more living in poverty, it is an assumption that is very questionable.

  9. mattsui

    A reasoned response to what was a politically myopic artical.
    I would like to see this discussion (and others like it) taken out of the context of Left versus Right. I think that having sympathy for the plight of refugees needn’t be a thing strictly for left leaning people. There must be those of “the Right” (right-identifying Australians?) who have sufficient empathy to want to seek a humane outcome for assylum seekers. Surely they haven’t all been duped by the “stop the boats = no mass drownings = good. ergo any policy aimed at stopping boats = good (even if said policy is destined to fail)” dogwhistle.
    I said on Bernard’s comment stream that this is about Australia asking itself hard questions about what sort of society we want to be. That’s not the sort of discussion we can afford to have along Left/Right divisions.

    Oh, and Steve. 180000/year. Where will they find enough boats?
    Please drop the left and write as an individual with a conscience. If the left becomes defined as everyone with a conscience, we risk defining the right as the exact opposite – i.e. all evil. Then conversations like this will become impossible.

  10. Julie Pulvirenti

    Agreed, given the conflicts in Syria and Egypyt can we expect even more claiming asylum? I think it rather naive to think the numbers will remain the same. What then? Very short sighted rhetoric. Clearly some changes need to be made to the UN convention or we remove our signature altogether.

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