The necessity of regional processing

An uncomfortable opinion – the necessity of regional processing and resettlement for asylum seekers – needs to be reiterated by those who support such a policy, especially in lieu of events which have occurred on Manus Island in the past 72 hours. Death and injury highlight the importance of these policies and this is the right time to talk about the appropriateness or otherwise of government decisions.

There is something inherently wrong with how the implementation of policy is occurring on Manus Island. These events demonstrate insufficient support for the local community, for the asylum seekers and for the PNG government. The combination of the rushed nature of the announcement (from a government stuck in campaign mode) and the difficultly of the environment have rendered administration inadequate. This can and should be addressed in the immediate short-term by increasing the funds, resources and technical assistance available to service providers and PNG government authorities.

In addition, there is the question – unanswerable given the abhorrent secrecy of this government – of whether more asylum seekers will be sent to Manus Island in the immediate short term. A strong argument can be made this should not occur until the environment can be demonstrated to be safe. The rapid establishment of an independent, external review would be instrumental in determining what is required to create a safe environment. An internal review will not suffice given the consequences of such a report.

Despite these events, I believe regional processing and resettlement of asylum seekers and refugees is critical as part of a broader policy within the region, a process Australia must lead. There is a clear relationship between the decision to send asylum seekers to PNG and the drastic reduction in the number of asylum seekers attempting to enter Australia. This cannot be ignored.

I disagree with the violent rhetoric used to describe refugees. I disagree with the idea deterrence is simple and works flawlessly, the idea at the heart of Operational Sovereign Borders. But I also reject the notion deterrence does not work. The unseen and unheard death of asylum seekers who drowned on route to Australia over the past 20 years should not wholly determine future policy however this history most certainly should be considered. This consideration points towards the underlying importance of regional processes given the change in migration flows we have seen.

This may be too close to ‘moral metrics’, attempts to quantify deaths of people seeking asylum, an extremely uncomfortable exercise. But to imagine otherwise suggests policy options detached from the incentives which dictate decisions made by people attempting to seek asylum in Australia. Evidence shows people seeking to migrate will ignore danger, in one case up to a 25 per cent chance of death, when trying to move from one country to another. Instead, considerations about the likelihood of a successful migration journey are more prominent and policy change can be highly influential in changing behaviour. Ignoring this knowledge will shape a policy based on hope, instead of history.

This does not mean the status quo is OK. Far from it. No public policy is a zero-sum game where we either push on unchanged or fully reverse course. Instead, there are a range of options which should be strongly considered, including;

  • Immediately increasing the offshore resettlement component of Australia’s humanitarian program.
  • Significantly increasing resettlement from within the region, specifically Indonesia and Malaysia.
  • Increasing the provision of bureaucratic assistance – something Australia is comparatively excellent at providing – to other governments.
  • Negotiating with regional governments to make available resettlement placements, i.e. the planned Malaysia people swap policy should be renegotiated.
  • Increasing the funding provided for multilateral organisations – predominantly the UNHCR – to increase the pace of asylum seeker processing within the region.
  • Increase assistance provided to the Nauru and PNG governments, countries which should not shoulder the burden of this process.

There is no black and white in public policy as fraught as this. These are not solutions which “solve the problem” of asylum flows. They are piecemeal additions where gains can be made to improve the system of seeking asylum in our region over time. Before each of those options can be achieved, there are literally thousands of decisions to be made enabling the foundations of a more successful policy approach.

We cannot escape or ignore over twenty years of policy – from mandatory detention in 1991 to PNG resettlement in 2014 – and hope this goes away. It will not and the inadequacy of other policy responses such as resettling every asylum seeker in the region should be rejected. They are so far outside the realm of possible within the current political environment they damage the ability to find consensus on implementing practical change. They would not work. Think of the social disharmony, the obliteration of democratic principles and the long-term impact on Australian politics of such options were they to be seriously considered. 

Perhaps over the long-term, if the Australian people can be persuaded after two decades of saying otherwise, then radical changes in policy for asylum seekers can be implemented. But here and now, this is not an option. Instead we can and should work to improve what is possible.

For those reading who also happen to be ALP members, we cannot simply wash our hands of this. Kevin Rudd conceived and implemented this policy. It is necessary but not sufficient. More thinking, advocacy and rebuttal is required to show a regional solution can work in a humane manner as opposed to what we currently see.

If you made it this far, I recommend you read these other takes as well: Bernard Keane (Crikey), Ben Eltham (New Matilda), Jeff Sparrow (the Guardian)

5 thoughts on “The necessity of regional processing

  1. I suspect you have hit on the least worst option. I find this issue very hard to deal with because of the cognitive dissonance. If I start from a welfare perspective I cant imagine a solution other than open borders. If I start from a systemic perspective I end up with harsh deterrents. Regional.processing may well be the best balance

  2. Thanks for your comment. I find myself thinking about global utility more and more, which is why extending the humanitarian program offshore component is so important. However I also believe Australian support services provided to refugees are vital to social harmony and settlement patterns. These are expensive and butt up directly against increased numbers.

    The balance is in there somewhere, which is for each government to make a decision on. I preferred 20,000, with potential increases over the medium term but the Abbott government has obviously decided $500m is too much for the additional 6,500 people per year.

    It’s a tragic policy area stuck in rhetoric which helps no-one. What is equally concerning is the potential damage attitudes to asylum may do over the long-term to attitudes on diversity and immigration in general. It’s a can of worms with no firm answers.

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