by Sarah Joseph
The issue of asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia has been massively politicised for over ten years. The arguments in this debate are well set. On one side is the rhetoric of hoards of queue-jumping illegal immigrants breaching our border security. On the other is the view that these are people to whom we owe international obligations, who are desperate and need our help, which we are more than capable of giving. It won’t surprise anyone that I am in the latter camp.
However, in the last year, another argument has come to dominate the debate. That is that we must stop these leaky unsafe boats to save the lives of those who would otherwise get on them. Such an argument has of course been prompted by the horrific scenes of the Christmas Island accident of early December 2010, and the more recent sinkings off the Java coast, the second of which led to the drowning of 150-200 people.
I am somewhat sceptical that the “saving lives” argument is the main motivator of many arguing to send asylum seekers offshore. I have little doubt that the traditional concerns regarding border protection, queue-jumping, and so on, lurk close below the surface. If “saving lives” was the main factor for government policy, then policies should be adopted which encourage the use of safer refugee boats, or to help refugees get here in another way (like increasing the annual intake of refugees from our region, which is present ALP policy but only in conjunction with the Malaysia solution).
Nevertheless, the “saving lives” argument must not be ignored. Indeed, it poses a significant challenge to those, such as myself, who favour the compassionate approach. One must confront the question of whether that “compassion”, even though it has been only begrudgingly pursued by the Gillard government, is luring people to their deaths.
Before addressing this thorny issue, I will digress and address some other salient issues.
Good refugees and bad refugees
Are those who arrive by boat “queue-jumpers”? Such statements assume there is a functioning queue for refugees, which clearly does not exist. Ironically, Australians seemed to recoil at their exposure to one manifestation of the queue, the mass of asylum seekers in Malaysia, in their apparent distaste for the Malaysia Solution.
Certainly, there are many refugees (and internally displaced persons) who have abided by “the rules”, and, having been assessed as genuine, are patiently (or probably impatiently) awaiting resettlement while living in limbo in a refugee camp. Such waits can be interminably long. Perhaps it is unfair that the boat arrivals, or at least the vast majority of them who are assessed to be refugees, take the place of those in refugee camps. Often it is said that the latter are more desperate and therefore more in need of assistance than the former.
In response, I note that Australia is one of the few refugee-receiving States which imposes a strict annual quota that includes both onshore and offshore applicants within it. That is, each successful onshore claim (whether the person arrived by boat or plane) displaces an offshore claimant. Along with the cruel policy of mandatory detention, the system that is adopted in this country is not inevitable. Secondly, it is a fool’s game to argue that priority regarding asylum should be given to “the most vulnerable”. How does one assess neediness and vulnerability? Should Australia only take child refugees? Or those who are the most psychologically vulnerable? Or those who are the poorest? A refugee is after all a refugee.
And the bare fact is that the vast majority of boat people are refugees. It is no wonder when one of the main source countries is Afghanistan, which generates charming anecdotes like this one from Wired Magazine about how Taliban ringtones are being downloaded by many to avoid being killed. Over 90% of those arriving by boat are found to be refugees, when they have access to proper appeal processes and the application of the standards in our Migration Act. Such appeals were denied to those who were detained in Nauru and PNG during the days of the Howard government’s Pacific Solution, so the number was lower but still healthy at around 70%. In order to deny that these people are refugees, one effectively has to doubt Australian laws and legal processes. An alternative and more disturbing scenario is that the Pacific Solution processes were inadequate, and some of the 30% were effectively refouled, meaning that they were genuine refugees returned to their place of persecution. Indeed, we know that some of those pressured to return to their homeland from Nauru, including those who had been on the Tampa, were killed upon their return. While below I dispute Australia’s responsibility for the deaths on sinking boats, the refoulement of a refugee is clearly within Australia’s responsibility.
How do we “stop the boats”?
Both major parties now support sending boat arrivals offshore, whether for processing (in Nauru or Manus Island) or not for processing (in Malaysia). I wish to assess their respective policies regarding “stopping the boats” in terms of their likely success in achieving that aim. Therefore, I will not be examining the humanitarian impacts of the policies.
The coalition points to the “success” of its Pacific Solution in stopping the boats and is demanding its reintroduction. Certainly, many fewer boats arrived while that policy was in place. While it is possibly true that “push” factors, those that create refugee outflows, have increased in recent years (eg the brutal end to the Sri Lankan civil war, increased instability in Afghanistan and persecution in Iran), it is difficult to deny the existence of pull factors. After all, simply consider the marked increase in boats to Australia since the Malaysia Solution was scuppered by the High Court.
However, I find it difficult to understand why offshore processing would actually stop the boats. Certainly, the head of the Immigration Department, Andrew Metcalfe, is sceptical of the utility of resurrecting Nauru. It does seem like Nauru would simply be a more remote and much more expensive version of processing on Christmas Island, which is not deterring the boats.
Of course, appellate processes may again be denied to anybody processed on Nauru, though that result is not certain given the likelihood of a High Court challenge. Even if appeals are denied, it is now open knowledge that 70% of those detained on Nauru made it to either Australia or New Zealand; I suspect many stuck in limbo in Indonesia would take those odds.
The Pacific Solution also included Temporary Protection Visas and the possibility of boat tow-backs. Yet TPVs did not deter people for the two years before the Nauru facility was opened, and may have encouraged more boats to come given that family reunification was no longer available through orthodox channels. And boat tow-backs are dangerous, and are not supported by those who have to actually do it, the Australian Navy, and occurred rarely under the Howard government before being abandoned altogether (on these arguments, see this blog from Jack the Insider). All of this points, in my view, to the Pacific Solution likely being a one trick pony.
All in all I think that the Malaysia Solution would have a greater deterrent effect, Primarily because the boat arrivals end up “at the back of the queue” in Malaysia, just as Gillard stated, quite spitefully in my view, when the policy was first announced. Who wants to be amongst those 800 people who undertake a dangerous journey only to end up in the situation in which they started, in a country which does not recognise their rights and indeed may abuse them quite badly? The brazen cruelty in the policy (notwithstanding its good point, the acceptance of 4000 asylum seekers from Malaysia) is the very reason that it could “work”.
On the other hand, people-smugglers are clever. They would seek to adjust their business model to get around the Malaysia restriction. Parents or spouses may be willing to be amongst the first 800, thus exhausting the Malaysia solution unless it should be renewed, if they are guaranteed that their loved ones would be amongst the first to benefit from the Malaysia logjam being removed. In any case, it seems unlikely that it would take long for the quota of 800 to be exhausted.
So, neither of the major party’s policies may in fact do much to stop the boats.
The right to life
The strongest argument, in my view, in favour of stopping the boats is that deterrence will stop people from dying on unseaworthy and/or overloaded vessels. It has been stated, by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen amongst others, that the premier right is the right to life, so it is irresponsible for Australia’s policies to “encourage” asylum seekers to jump on boats to come here.
The deaths by sinking are a tragedy. And the opportunistic behaviour of people-smugglers in crowding hundreds onto rickety boats meant for far fewer people is criminal. But no one is forcing asylum seekers onto those boats. While Robert Manne may ponder that the risks are unacceptable, they are not his risks to accept, nor are they those of the Australian government. There is such a thing as human agency, and it is asylum seekers themselves who are exercising it to get on those boats. Indeed, despite the horrific tragedy off Java a few weeks ago, some of the survivors have vowed to try again and get on another boat.
They are getting on boats that they know might sink because they are desperate. They cannot return home because they are refugees, and they have no future in Indonesia. They are making the considered decision to risk their enjoyment of the right to life in order to seek a life. It is a choice that many of us, safe in our secure lives, well might choose if we were presented with the same awful options.
Of course, governments sometimes adopt policies to stop voluntary risk-taking. Many of these policies are disparaged by the libertarian right as nanny state measures. In any case, those risks often jeopardise others (e.g. as in the case of speeding or drunk driving) or are the result of addiction. We don’t normally adopt policies which stop non-citizens from doing dangerous things overseas. It is an imperfect analogy but our government is generally supportive of the Arab Spring: it isn’t for example imploring the Syrian protesters to stay home because otherwise they might get shot. This again highlights that “saving lives” is not the main motivator, compared to other well-worn memes such as border protection.
Certainly, if Australia actually “stops the boats”, asylum seekers won’t be able to risk their lives and die on their way here. But the current proposed policies would not deter desperate people from doing something else desperate to seek a life somewhere else. Alternatively, they may join the deadly fate of many of their fellow countrymen who remain at home. The people smugglers would likely adjust to ply their trade towards different countries so their grim business, taking advantage of the desperation of others, would continue.
It would be preferable if refugees did not jump on dangerous boats run by (largely) opportunistic people-smugglers to come here. It would be far preferable if refugees could be processed and resettled in Australia and around the world in a timely fashion from functioning processing centres. But that world does not exist. The “business model” of people-smugglers will not be “smashed” so long as there remains such an egregious global “market failure” in dealing with refugees.
“Stopping the boats”, at least in the manners suggested by the major parties, would constitute a local political fix, which would make our politicians (and many Australians) feel better, but it is hardly a helpful response to a global humanitarian crisis. That crisis, in the absence of a sudden decrease in push factors, demands global action, or, at the least, proper regional action rather than piecemeal policies like Malaysia, Nauru, and Manus Island.
I do not pretend that such a solution is easily achievable. But the removal of some of the disproportionate political heat in our local debate would render Australia more able to play a leading role in seeking such a solution. Consider the fact that our regional developing neighbours have many tens of thousands of asylum seekers. Developing frontline states like Jordan, Pakistan or Kenya, are home to millions of unsettled asylum seekers and refugees. Fellow developed countries in Europe and North America receive many thousands more unauthorised arrivals of asylum seekers and also illegal immigrants, by boat and also across their land borders. Those countries must look askance at the self-centred and histrionic quality of our debate and I doubt they respect us for it.