Brendan O'Connor

With a new immigration minister, we have an opportunity to reshape our public discussion on asylum seekers.

If there is one thing Brendan O’Connor might reflect on as he settles into his new job is that we have, for over 70 years, managed successfully the movement of people into Australia. It may sometimes have been chaotic and sometimes unplanned, but as a country we have done it pretty well and we are richer for it.

Regardless of how people have arrived they have gone on to live fruitful lives for themselves and their families. This includes the early boat arrivals of the late 1970s, the over 20,000 people who sought asylum in Australia in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the close to 13,000 who arrived by boat from 1997 to 2007.

In this most unforgiving of portfolios, the new Minister needs to focus on three key issues.

The first is to put a human face to the story of asylum. People who come are not law breakers. They have committed no crimes. They have simply done what we would all do if our families were in danger — find safety as far away from the conflict as possible.

To change the narrative takes guts because the narrative for over 20 years has been to demonise boat arrivals. It has painted them as cunning and devious people looking for the main chance, and somehow subverting “our way of life”.  But these same people are resourceful and aspirational — the sort of people who came as migrants and refugees and built a modern, wealthy nation state.

In his leadership, Malcolm Fraser knew in the late 1970s that we had to counter the fear and community angst that arose over Indochinese refugees. He overcame those fears through public information, education and town hall-style meetings. He addressed national fears with facts to refute the fiction.

The second matter O’Connor must look at is how to avoid people getting stuck in Kafkaesque processes. While it is hard to bring together the figures, it would appear based on news releases and other data that there are over 12,000 people currently in some type of process in Australia, Nauru or Manus Island. Some are living in the community on bridging visas, some with work rights, some without. Some can access health care. Many can’t. Others are in some type of detention. Some people’s cases are being examined, others are in limbo.

“We need leadership that appeals to our better nature, together with sensible and equitable processes and a robust regional engagement strategy.”

As governments attempt to play with this process the inevitable consequences are delays: people becoming “lost” in the system, overwhelmed by complexities and, for some, avoidable tragedies. Every asylum seeker living in the community should be allowed to work.

If delaying processing or denying work rights is done to look tough it seldom works — where asylum seekers come from is harder than anything we can throw at them.

Making it more punitive for people also defeats one of the basic principles of good administration and something that practitioners in this area have known for a long time: the faster you decide a case, the more likely (if it is a no) for a person to leave Australia voluntarily. Conversely the longer it takes and the longer a person is in Australia the more likely it is that they will stay.

Roots are established in communities, children are born. It just becomes harder to remove a person who has lived and worked in the community for long periods of time. If the purpose of lowing down processing and a denial of work rights is to deter, then this is a fantasy. People smugglers know which buttons to push when they are marketing their services to overcome any impacts of domestic policy.

Finally, as we have said so often, this is not Australia’s “problem” to fix. It is an issue of international proportions and our diplomacy, aid and immigration programs are all part of the search for durable solutions. Our work in the region is essential and urgent, particularly with Indonesia and Malaysia to assist in developing a regional protection framework that provides new alternatives for displaced people that are safe and secure.

In the region, active participation with Malaysia and Indonesia must include full partnership with UNHCR. The new Minister should urgently build alternatives both in source countries like Pakistan and in regional countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

We need leadership that appeals to our better nature, together with sensible and equitable processes and a robust regional engagement strategy. Good luck.

*John Menadue is a former secretary of the Department of Immigration and Arja Keski-Nummi is a former first assistant secretary in the Department in charge of the Refugee, Humanitarian and International Division