Sound-bite diplomacy no solution to asylum seeker quandary
June 27, 2012
The impasse over boat people casts no credit on our politicians.
THERE is a simple way to end the impasse on asylum seeker policy, but Tony Abbott and his immigration spokesman refuse to embrace it. Why?
They say the so-called Malaysian solution won't work because the cap of 800 asylum seekers will be exceeded before the opposition leader can pump up the tyres on his bike. They say it won't work because conniving people smugglers will fill their boats with children, who will not be sent to Malaysia under the controversial people-swap arrangement. They say the 800 sent back to Malaysia will simply make their way back to Indonesia and jump on another boat.
If they are right - and they may be - the policy the government insists will deter people from risking their lives on leaky boats will be exposed as a cruel fraud within a matter of weeks.
The plan is predicated on the belief that the number of people prepared to hand their life savings to people smugglers will shrink to a trickle after the first couple of plane loads from Christmas Island touch down in Kuala Lumpur.
If this doesn't happen, assuming Prime Minister Julia Gillard remains committed to the deterrent-value of offshore processing, there would be no reason not to embrace the Abbott alternative.
So why, given that the election is still a year away, won't Abbott, Scott Morrison et al give the policy a go? Is it pride? Arrogance? Opportunism? All three? The Abbott/Morrison mantra is that their policy worked when it was implemented by the Howard government - and that they won't compromise with the mob whose policies palpably haven't worked.
''In 2001, [John] Howard changed the laws, he made them tighter,'' is how shadow attorney-general George Brandis put it on Q&A on Monday. ''You say they were inhumane, but nobody drowned during those years, and he effectively solved the problem through three measures.'' When Tony Jones suggested Brandis might have been mistaken, he was unbowed: ''There were hardly any significant incidents of the kind we saw the other day.''
What about the SIEV X tragedy, Jones interjected, when more than 350 people perished when their overcrowded boat sank? Brandis obfuscated. ''That was before those policy changes were announced, Tony, so I think my proposition is right.''
No it isn't, George. The SIEV X sank late in October 2001, almost two months after Howard implemented the Pacific Solution, where those who tried to come by boat were sent to camps on the Pacific Island states of Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
The disaster came exactly two years after Howard introduced the policy of temporary protection visas (TPVs), whereby those who came by boat were only entitled to a three-year protection visa, after which they would have to reapply or return to their country of origin.
Aside from being denied any sense of certainty, TPV-holders were not allowed to apply to be reunited with immediate family members - which had the perverse effect of encouraging those who had no legal prospect of joining their spouses or parents to follow on boats of their own.
When Ed Killesteyn, a senior official in the immigration department, appeared before a Senate committee in October 2002, he was asked about rising numbers of children and family groups on boats and replied: ''I suspect it is a direct consequence of the entitlements that temporary protection visa holders have in terms of family reunion.''
Yes, the numbers did fall away completely after the Pacific Solution was implemented, but this was broadly in line with global trends - just like the spike in numbers now.
Nauru was a deterrent because those who were sent there were told they would not set foot on Australian soil. Now, it is clear that the vast majority who would be sent to Nauru (and are found to be refugees) would end up in Australia. The only deterrent is that you may be left there in limbo for years and, like many in the Howard years, suffer from depression, anxiety and sleeplessness.
The third arm of the Howard policies that Abbott and Morrison want to revive is turning back the boats where it is safe to do so, a policy the navy says is unsafe and Indonesia opposes.
The opposition's most powerful critique of the Malaysian people-swap should not be discounted. It is that legislation to ensure it withstands another High Court challenge would strip away human rights protections in existing migration laws. But the government's advice is that such legislation would also be needed before Abbott's preference for Nauru could be resurrected.
Chris Bowen's pledge is that the human rights of those sent to Malaysia can be protected under the agreement, though there are no guarantees. Aside from the 4000 increase in the number of refugees taken from Malaysia, he points out that there would be, and have been, knock-on improvements for other asylum seekers.
At best, it is only part of the answer - and morally repugnant at that. The real focus should be on finding durable solutions for those who have been forced to flee their homelands, and addressing the ''push'' factors in places like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.
When both sides run out of sound bites, this reality will remain.
Michael Gordon is national editor.
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