At present, both major political parties favour the use of punitive measures that theoretically stem the arrival of boat people. This theory supposedly creates the facade that if Australia purports a harsh enough regime, hypothetical arrivals will cease, seeking instead their chances with the Taliban. In any case, it’s not the Australia we should strive for.
The etiquette of the checkout at Coles is not how it works when you are running for your life.
In the midst of this seeming solution, neither the government nor the opposition has considered the legitimacy or humanity of their approach. Neither has given the public an accurate and honest explanation, meaning they’ve instead been grievously misled by false statements and gross sensationalism by opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison, and most recently by Foreign Minister Senator Bob Carr.
It’s useful to start with a few basic facts: something which neither major party seems willing to do.
The debate about asylum seekers was poisoned from the beginning by the Howard government, which spoke ominously about “border control”, and referred to boat people as “illegals” and “queue-jumpers”. By that bit of dog-whistling, then-prime minister John Howard conveyed the idea that boat people were a risk to our community: that they had committed an offence by coming here and that they had behaved with some degree of moral obliquity.
Asylum seekers do not commit any offence by coming here. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights every person has the right to seek asylum in any territory they can reach. It is a dismal reflection of the state of politics that Mr Morrison frequently refers to asylum seekers arriving by boat as “illegals”. He knows it is a blatant lie, but he also knows that it works.
As for “queue-jumping”, leave aside that there is no queue where boat people come from, the etiquette of the checkout at Coles is not how it works when you are running for your life.
“Border protection” is a grossly misleading term, used by both major parties. It implies that boat people are a threat to us. They are not. We do not need to be protected from asylum seekers: they need to be protected from their persecutors.
Border control is a legitimate concern, but is irrelevant to the discussion. About 4 million people arrive in Australia each year by orthodox means: they come for business, holidays, study etc. If 25,000 a year arrive without authority, it is absurd to suggest that we have “lost control” of our borders. Our borders are close to watertight. Even if this year’s rate of unauthorised arrivals continued (which is unlikely, given our history and geography), 25,000 unauthorised arrivals per year means that border control is effective in 99.3 per cent of cases. That is pretty good.
So what should Australia do with people who arrive here by boat seeking asylum? At present we spend from $200,000 to $450,000 per person per year to detain them on an indefinite basis. The cost depends on whether they are held in a metropolitan detention centre (cheapest) or a remote or offshore place (most expensive).
I believe it is reasonable that unauthorised arrivals should be detained initially for preliminary health and security checks. That detention should, however, be capped at one month. After that, while their refugee status is being determined, they should be released into the community on conditions that will ensure that they remain available for processing and (if necessary) removal. They should be allowed to work and live in dignity.
While their refugee status is being determined, they should be required to live in designated rural or regional areas: there are plenty of country towns that would be happy to receive them and benefit from their arrival. This approach has the advantage of being decent, humane, and vastly less expensive than the present approach. Nor does it damage people by subjecting them to the further mental trauma of not knowing when their indefinite detention will end, making their transition to becoming productive members of society, if and when they are determined to be owed protection, much easier.
Australia has signed the Refugee Convention. Indonesia has not. Asylum seekers who get to Indonesia live in perpetual fear of detection. In Indonesia, asylum seekers who are assessed as refugees may wait 20 or 30 years before they are offered a place in a third country. In the meantime they’re unable to seek employment and their children are deprived an education. Not surprisingly, some of them – those with initiative and courage – take a chance with a people smuggler and arrive in Australia.
Some reading this will think: “Well, they should wait their turn.” But what would you do? If you and your family faced persecution at the hands of the Taliban, would you wait in Kabul for a bullet; or hide in Indonesia for years on end waiting for another country to offer you protection? Or would you run for your life, and do whatever it took to get you and your family to safety? I know I would get to safety by hook or by crook. And if I got to a convention country, I would ask for protection.
Ask our politicians what they would do if they faced the same choice?
Why further punish an already vulnerable minority for their actions – when those same actions simply reflect our shared sense of humanity and our fierce instincts for survival.
Julian Burnside is a lawyer and human rights advocate. He will be speaking in Sydney with Dianne Hiles at Redfern Town Hall on Wednesday, July 24 as part of the event A New Way: New Politics, New Policies.