Reconciling asylum and humanitarian policy on “Australian Agenda”

There was a very interesting exchange on Australian Agenda last Sunday between Peter Van Onselen and Scott Morrison:

Van Onselen: Can I ask you one final question on this, the issue of the number of people who are seeking to get here having declined down to the 10,000 number in Indonesia and so forth. Do we fundamentally know where most of them go or do we care? Because my point is just that they don’t vanish into the ether so are they making hazardous journeys elsewhere? Are they non-genuine refugees that go back to their original homeland or are they potentially genuine refugees who are just stranded in non-signatory nations but obviously because we have clamped can’t get here.

Minister Morrison: There are 10.4 million refugees around the world Peter and Australia is not the UNHCR nor is our mandate to provide that service of support all around the world. It is our job to ensure that those who have come through the proper process we can provide support for them. One of the things I am most pleased about is when Labor in their final year the special humanitarian programme fell to just 500 places. This year it will be 5000 places, now that is a dramatic increase that we have been able to effect. Over the entire programme we have put 4,400 places this year for those affected by Iraq and Syria. Many of those, I would assume the vast majority of those would be Christian communities affected by that slaughter that we are seeing. Now you made the point before that it is predominantly sectarian within the Islamic community, well I think that in the broad is true but in terms of the persecution of Christian communities in the Middle East we know, we read today of women being sold into marriages. All of the most medieval barbaric craziness that makes us all sick to the stomach.

Van Onselen deserves credit for these insightful questions. They are rarely asked but get to the heart of any asylum policy based exclusively on deterrence.

Does Australian policy shift people from seeking asylum in one destination to another? Or does the policy stop people who are not strictly asylum seekers and seeking a better life?

These questions should be asked more often. Morrison’s answer is inadequate on a number of levels.

It is true Australia cannot resettle over 10 million refugees. However if the goal is to provide as much support as possible to refugees, as inferred by the Minister’s comparison of Liberal and ALP numbers under the Special Humanitarian Programme, then the Minister is blurring the truth.

The number of refugees granted visas in 2012-13 was about 20,000. The number under the Coalition is scheduled to be 13,750.

Minister Morrison boasting about how his actions have enabled more places under the Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) is politics. He is relying on a poor public understanding of the intricacies of Australia’s asylum and humanitarian program.

The total number of people assisted and resettled in Australia as refugees is significantly lower under the Coalition government than the ALP. This decision was made by the Coalition because of the costs of resettling an additional 6,250 people every year (approximately $2bn over four years). For the Immigration Minister to pretend it was anything else is regrettable.

A much harder question is how to reconcile offering assistance specifically to Iraqis and Syrians. There are two issues with this.

As the Minister pointed out, there are over 10 million refugees in the world at the moment. By highlighting the Iraqi and Syrian caseloads, other caseloads are ignored. This is inevitable with any decision in a limited humanitarian program. But it is hard to gel with Coalition rhetoric about queues and the automatic reference to African refugee camps whenever the question of boat arrivals is raised. If we accept the concept of a queue, should the Iraqis and Syrians wait their turn? This nonsense argument shows we should not accept the concept of a queue.

Even more difficult is the different treatment Iraqi and Syrian citizens will receive if they travel by boat to Australia. These people, including presumably “persecuted Christians” where “women being sold into marriages” amongst other “medieval barbaric craziness”, are not offered a safe haven but an alternative. Compared to the 4,400 people resettled under the SHP, their lives will be significantly worse off in terms of health, education and economic outcomes.

I support a regional process which includes some third country settlement. But the Minister’s rhetoric shows how difficult it is to piece together a coherent asylum and humanitarian policy. Explaining the nuance behind why and how the same group of persecuted people are owed different outcomes has not been attempted. This should belie the Minister’s confidence as it is misplaced. Instead we get sound bites and talking points.

This brings us back to the original questions from Peter Van Onselen. Is Australian policy deterring Iraqi citizens fleeing violence and forcing them into equally dangerous journeys elsewhere? Or is it stopping Iraqi citizens who want a different life but do not face the threat of persecution?

The answer is probably both but with the continuation of violence, the former is likely to account for an increasing share.

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