Some additional thoughts on asylum policy

I had some highly critical feedback on my blog post from Tuesday. I’d like to outline some additional thoughts, relying on inference and ‘gut-feels’, something the asylum policy debate in Australia seems to be founded on.

I think most people would agree the current status quo is unacceptable, if (and this is important) they are aware of what is occurring. The death of Reza Berati is one example. The new (leaked) report from Nauru is another we learn 190 children currently being detained, who do not have access to basic health procedures and are not assessed by qualified paediatricians. I think this belief of the merits of the status quo also hold true for a not insignificant number of politicians (however for a range of reasons we mostly do not hear about this, with some obvious exceptions).

When the Howard government decided to remove children from detention centres in Australia in the mid-2000s, it was a popular decision. This was not always the case. Public opinion changed over time as government MPs, refugee advocates and activists increasingly publicised this as a policy stance that was unacceptable. Knowledge about the impact detention had on children, as well as an appeal to morality, slowly embedded itself within broader public opinion.

I believe this is a good historical example for the present and that current events are undermining public support for some tenets of current asylum policy. These elements of policy are becoming more unacceptable to an increasing number of people in Australia. I’m unsure as to what proportion but I would hazard a guess it would increase with government voices speaking out about their concerns.

However, being critical of a specific part about offshore processing does not mean one cannot support the concept. Just as children in mandatory detention lost support, support for mandatory detention remained.* Further, supporting parts of the current policy approach does not mean you endorse the whole framework. If the basis for the public discussion about asylum policy becomes whether you are simply for or against Nauru and Manus “as-is”, we are poorer for it.

For instance. It is increasingly clear the capacity to deal with asylum seeker processing is too limited in its current form at Manus Island under the PNG government. This may also be true of Nauru under current conditions. If I hold this opinion, I’m not automatically against offshore processing. If I support the Malaysia solution, this does not force me to also support every instance of burden-sharing. The EU Dublin agreement has obvious flaws which undermine cooperation over time. Support (or opposition) with caveats and limitations is important for finding common ground and moving away from where we are.

Further, supporting a regional framework does not limit other policy prescriptions. I would like to see a humanitarian program of 40,000 or more refugees, increasing over time. I would like to see a structured program of foreign assistance integrated into our aid program, fostering contemporary practice on the treatment of asylum seekers within our region such as promoting work rights and access to basic health care. I would like to see Australia leading the movement to increase resettlement in a sustainable manner, not simply to solve a problem before an election. I also believe no onshore resettlement for all asylum seekers into the future is simply unsustainable as a policy option over the long-term.

I’m currently living in Timor-Leste and I had no idea that recently the military chased away an asylum boat and prevented them from landing in Timor-Leste. What should the Australian government position be on this? Should they have one? I think a position would be easier to hold if a regional framework allowed Timor-Leste more scope in their position to act instead of simply pushing the boat away to a different (Indonesian) island. Imagine a regional framework where the Timor-Leste military and government know Australia will support their effort to deal with asylum seekers instead of the current status quo where very little help is afforded outside of international organisations (who are not in a position to assist outside of very basic assistance).

I would like to see as many people assisted as possible, while also ensuring the public are supportive of key government policies. I also want any possibility of an anti-immigrant backlash heavily mitigated. These are necessary in our liberal democratic system of government.

None of these the policy options discussed above are going to emerge by themselves. We are so far from the approach long advocated by opponents of the current regime – onshore processing without mandatory detention – that is appears almost too distant to imagine. For example, the last two progressive governments introduced mandatory detention (Keating) and introduced offshore resettlement (Rudd). Hoping politicians in the ALP or the Liberal party suddenly discover a different set of values is a poor method to enact change. This is why I respect commentators such as John Menadue – progressive stalwart – whose analysis is grounded in a pragmatic progressive spirit.

However it is important to note success. After many years of leaving the humanitarian program at 13,750 places, a combination of events over the past four years increased this number to 20,000 in 2012-13. An ALP victory at the previous election would have seen this increase further to 27,000. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the humanitarian program has been reduced once again to 13,750. But this example highlights how there can be change to long-held policy stances.

Opponents may (likely do) see all of this as meaningless, designed to obfuscate what is, to them, an essential truth about the human rights of an individual to seek asylum. But if the past 15 years have taught us anything in Australia, it’s that change doesn’t appear out of nowhere and ‘human rights’ are a construct of what we make them, particularly what governments make of them.

All of this said, I would be amiss to admit I am increasing uncertain about what is the right thing to do. There are so many competing factors – political leadership, policy outcomes, foreign government capacity, international relations (just to mention a few) – that uncertainty should be an overriding factor. This should not result in policy stasis but a more circumspect approach to policy-making. We are a long way from there but I remain hopeful we can improve this long-fraught policy over time.

* A discussion on mandatory detention seems out of place at the moment considering the policy combination of offshore processing and resettlement. However, mandatory detention has been proven as ineffective at preventing boat arrivals as well as inflicting cruel impacts on those detained. There is no rationale for it as a policy and any future onshore processing/resettlement should be done in conjunction with asylum seekers living in the community.

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