Explanation, Expansion and Improvement: Requirements for Australian asylum policy

The immigration portfolio has been upended by the events on Manus Island, with the late night admission from Scott Morrison that the asylum seeker who died did so inside the detention centre. In addition, the Department has released a report into the Nauru riots of July 2013 which concludes, “The speed involved to get the Nauru RPC operational within a short period of time compromised the proper assessment and planning required for the safety and security of the facility”. Dictionary meaning please? Politics.

The ALP introduced the PNG policy and offshore resettlement. I believe there is a necessity for regional processing. But as events unfold, the onus has fallen on both the government and the ALP to do the following: better explain why regional processing is required, expand regional partners and, implement and support improved management, facilities and processes for offshore detention centres.


There is a rapidly emerging groundswell of public support against current policies, the likes of which is rare for policy which finds bipartisan support in Australian politics. This is best personified by this op-ed by the President of the Human Rights Commission. This is being driven by a variety of factors, most prominently by the excellent reporting in the media given government secrecy of Operational Sovereign Borders but also a visceral reaction to the death of an asylum seeker under Australian care.

This shows the inadequacy of public rhetoric on this issue. “Stop the boats” is nothing more than a slogan. The PNG policy was announced in the heat of an election campaign by a Prime Minister heading to defeat.

Politicians from both major parties and senior bureaucrats in the immigration portfolio have a strong preference for regional processing. This is not because they are evil. It is because they objectively believe this is the best policy from a range of sub-optimal alternatives regarding the movement of asylum seekers to Australia via South East Asia.

Yet instead of explanations, we get politics. This is understandable, but regrettable. The ALP, to the best of my knowledge, does little in a structured manner to explain these policies to its members and supporters, many of whom have strong aversions to offshore processing and resettlement. Relying on elected members to go out and explain is not good enough. I receive on average two emails a month asking for donations but I’ve never received an email laying out why the ALP adopted the PNG solution. The government for its part can stop gloating and reiterate the need for these policies in a more coherent and less offensive manner. Incorporating the comparative ‘burden’ of Australia in relation to other countries also wouldn’t go astray but this is highly unlikely to occur.

The alternatives to current policies are far from perfect which is why they remain unused without mainstream political support in Australia. They are laden with poor incentives to people fleeing danger and seeking protection. Instead, by moving towards a proper regional framework – burden-sharing arrangements where Australia plays the primary role – the attraction of fleeing by boat can be mitigated. Yet before this can happen, a proper conversation aimed at demonstrating the need for these policies must occur.


A regional framework does not equal Nauru and Papua New Guinea. This is akin to a football team without coaches, training staff and a ground to play at.

A regional framework requires government-to-government and bureaucracy-to-bureaucracy relationships with all major countries in the region working towards to same outcome. The obvious problem is that many of these governments do not particularly care for Australian asylum policy. This means it takes time, effort and a nuanced approach to ensure participation working towards long-term goals. Progressive ebbs and flows but must not be abandoned.

This is the major reason towing back boats into Indonesia is such a terrible idea. Even if safety could be proven beyond doubt for the people being towed back (which it can’t), the damage to the relationship with Indonesia has become close to irreparable.

For example, some of the most effective policies to deter deaths at sea in this policy environment are visa decisions by regional governments. These are sovereign governments free to pursue their own agenda. However by building trust, cooperation and support within the region, Australian policy success becomes more functional. Funding critical programs and support across the region is also not just good policy but will save money over the medium term, by reducing the use of the Navy and the use of offshore facilities.

Malcolm Fraser is lauded today for his actions in the past. Yet his policy occurred within a regional framework, not a domestic setting. While he did not tow back boats or send people to offshore detention centres (or, to his credit, build mandatory detention facilities in Australia), he was able to participate in a regional resettlement framework in which the burden was shared. The United States, Canada and European countries all played major roles. From Wikipedia:

Country Vietnamese resettled 1980-1997
United States 458,367
Canada 60,285
Australia 46,711
France 19,264
Germany 12,067
United Kingdom 4,842
Norway 3,998
Belgium 3,106
Sweden 3,079
Denmark 2,298
Other countries 9,492
Grand Total 623,509

This is not criticism of Malcolm Fraser. Nor am I suggesting we need a global resettlement program for Iranians, Afghanis and other people seeking asylum in Australia via boat. However a proper regional framework for Australia policy to operate within, where resettlement is a major component, is important. It will also require an increase in the number of humanitarian and asylum seeker resettlement places in Australia, something the current government recently reduced.

Those who say regional processing doesn’t work are misguided and those who claim what we have now are regional processing are wrong. Australia should, can and will eventually resettle people who seek asylum within the region but it is critical this occurs in a structured program as opposed to ad-hoc boat arrivals.


The Nauru riots occurred on 19 July 2013 under an ALP government. The death and violence at Manus Island was under a Liberal government less than a week ago. This is a bipartisan policy in search of bipartisan improvements.

The Abbott government has a responsibility to improve the standard of management for all offshore facilities, improve the facilities themselves and radically recast governance for service providers and the bureaucracy. The upcoming Manus Island enquiry must be transparent and broad. The influx of resources, swift. But perhaps more than any other single measure, these people need to have their asylum claims processed. ‘No Advantage’ does not apply offshore and having people locked up with no prospect of any processing, for anyone, will only lead to more violence and uncertainty. Of course, Australia possess the knowledge and ability to process claims while Nauru and PNG most definitely do not. This seemingly intractable problem must be solved.

In addition, the culture of secrecy which has pervaded asylum policy must stop. There are signs this is happening, with more details emerging in the past four weeks than in the latter period of 2013 but more regular information flows are vital.

The ALP, which I am a member of, has a responsibility to support these improvements, where appropriate, instead of only making hay with the politics. They have a responsibility to ensure implementation of a policy which they support occurs to the best ability of the government.

There were those who argued these policies would never work from the start. If needed improvement is not provided, their predictions will only look increasingly more relevant casting renewed doubt on the ability of the government and opposition to run effective policy.

It is disingenuous to say there is no difference between the Abbott government and the ALP on asylum policy. There is a significant difference in the size of the humanitarian program and the approach each party takes in relation to how asylum seekers are portrayed to the public. Further, the relationship with the Indonesian government is one example where there is an emerging difference given the use of boat tow backs.

However, it is valid to say they both support offshore processing and resettlement. Because of this, improving policy outcomes requires more attention and funding for those asylum seekers in Australia’s care. This is one of the hardest policy tasks currently in government but it must occur as soon as practically possible.

The death of asylum seekers inside or outside of offshore facilities is unacceptable regardless of the consequences of alternative policy options.

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