On the 23rd August 2013, Australian Prime Minister-in-waiting Tony Abbott announced a new policy of regional deterrence for asylum seekers hoping to settle in Australia. The policy included the ability to buy un-seaworthy boats from Indonesian fishermen. (Otherwise known as the boat-buy back scheme.) This policy would ensure that the boats did not end up in the hands of people smugglers, and be responsible for the drownings of asylum seekers at sea.
In an exclusive for WhyDev, I managed to dig up the original email that Abbott sent to Indonesian fishermen. It is clearly inspired by the Nigerian bank scams that anyone with an email address is sure to be familiar with. This exclusive correspondence is below:
Dear Respected Indonesian Fisherman,
Permit me to inform you of my desire of going into business relationship with you. I got your contact from the International web site directory. I prayed over it and selected your name among other names due to it’s esteeming nature and the recommendations given to me as a reputable and trust worthy person I can do business with and by the recommendations I must not hesitate to confide in you for this simple and sincere business.
I am Anthony John Abbott, the only son of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Henry Abbott. My father was English-born and I was born in Newcastle upon Tyne. However, my father moved our family in 1960 to Australia by boat and we settled in northern Sydney. Although I attended a Catholic seminary, I am now an elected representative of the Australian people. Recently, with the death of the Australian Labor Party, the Treasury secretly told me that they have a sum of $20.000.000 (Twenty Million Dollars) for a policy of the regional deterrence of people smuggling left in a suspense account in the Treasury in Canberra.
It was also explained to me that because of the extraordinary number of boats and asylum seekers making their way to Australia, that I should seek for a God fearing foreign partner in a country of my choice where I will transfer this money and use it for buying back their fishing boats. Sir, we are honourably seeking your assistance in the following ways.
To provide a Bank account where this money will be transferred to.
Handing over of your fishing boat vessel upon receipt of Bank transfer.
Moreover, we are willing to offer you a bounty payment for specific information that leads to the arrest of people smugglers in your village. Please feel free to contact me via this email address:
Anticipating to hear from you soon.
Thanks and God Bless
The Honourable Anthony John Abbott, Prime Minister of Australia
PLEASE FOR PRIVATE AND SECUTIRY REASONS, REPLY ME VIA EMAIL:
Marianne Jago-Bassingthwaighte is an international development professional, zen student, writer, mentor and aid heretic. Her new blog “Inside Out Development” launches next week, where she will publish a longer version of this article. For more info email her at email@example.com and she will excitedly add you to her blog list.
In Australia we are in caretaker period, the lull before the federal election storm. The hysteria over where to send “illegal refugees” who arrive in Australia, or who die trying, has reached fever pitch. It’s all ending in tears. It’s time for me for me to dry mine, buckle up my boots, and wade into the policy arena.
This epidemic of nastiness toward refugees took on a new strain in August 2013. The incumbent government, trailing in the polls, outdid itself by promising to send Australian-bound “boat people” to neighbouring Papua New Guinea, a highly underdeveloped country largely unable to care for its own population, for processing and yes, resettlement. To me this seems remarkably like a f*** off refugees policy.
It is worth noting that that under the current system, almost 90% of asylum seekers’ claims to refugee status have been ultimately accepted under Australian migration law, meaning they have a well-founded fear of being persecuted in their home country.
These people include the Hazaras, a case demonstrating one small piece of DoubleThink that I can’t get past. Many “boat people” are Hazaras fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, where oddly enough our own troops and aid workers, are standing up to the Taliban because they randomly persecute people (like Hazaras).
Do forgive me but I can’t make out the logic here. We endanger our soldiers and aid workers to protect the lives of Hazaras in Afghanistan and we would also send Hazara boat people to Papua New Guinea because they are “illegal queue jumpers” and because “we will decide” who comes to Australia.
How did Hazaras go from being worthy of protection to being worthy of demonization and abandonment? Might it be because they fled the country in which they were being persecuted and had the gall to seek asylum in Australia? I’m pretty sure that’s what I’d be doing if I were Hazara.
There is plenty ofinformation in the public domain to refute the slogans that the major parties are propagating in their demonization of refugees, such as the fact that all refugees were asylum seekers at some point, and that it isn’t illegal to seek asylum.
There has also been some serious policy work done which points to the need for a bi-partisan, regional solution that isn’t just about buying off the neighbouring country that can least refuse.
But this isn’t going to excite the voting public, at least not in the way a great piece of self-aggrandising bastardry does. To be frank: I’m holding out for a hero from among the major parties and all I’m getting are lies lies and not even any damn statistics to back them up.
Soon, one of the main two political parties will be in power, and neither has a credible refugee policy. I am fairly resigned now to this, and am flirting with the idea of a donkey vote, or even abstaining altogether. But try as I might, I just can’t seem to disengage.
In an effort to be the change I want to see in the world, last week I wrote an impassioned letter telling our Dear Leader that sending refugees to Papua New Guinea is not only craven but is also in breach of our international legal obligations. I didn’t mention the stash of cash taken from the aid budget ostensibly to fund periods of prolonged detention offshore for asylum seekers.
Here is the letter’s high point, if I may say:
Finally, please could you provide me with the costing estimates of this “PNG solution”, in particular the fees being earned by the private security company to whom you have entrusted responsibility for the success of this policy. Please note I plan to withhold from further tax payments my portion of funds that would fund your PNG asylum seeker policy.
Striving for politeness and decorum, I signed the letter Sincerely. I took some deep breaths to calm myself down having worked myself up in service of humanity. I followed Amnesty International’s campaign instructions and sent it to both the PM’s office and to the office of the Minister for Immigration. I have sought Divine Guidance – specifically from Joan of Arc – and now rise, phoenix-like from these policy ashes.
Here are the responses I received (Amnesty take note):
From the PM’s proxy people:
“If you wish to contact Prime Minister Rudd during this (caretaker) period, please direct your enquiries through the Labor Party website.”
There is nowhere on the website to submit letters.
From Tony Burke MP’s proxy people:
“Please note that this is Tony’s email address for electorate…matters. If you are writing to Tony in his capacity as (Immigration) Minister…please email firstname.lastname@example.org”.
It’s true. I wrote to the Minister and he said I had to write to the Minister.
How is one to make meaning of all this? I’ve heard it said that good and evil oppose each other, contain each other, and this is the nature of things. Perhaps we in Australia are given this refugee rejection business as an opportunity to show our better selves: our tolerance, our irreverence for authority, our love of the underdog.
I am not hopeful that this election will produce a fair outcome for refugees but something good has come of it for me. I have connected with a community of practitioners using its considerable skills and integrity to help refugees seeking asylum in Australia. They are fearless and determined, and I feel only admiration and relief when I hear of their efforts.
Perhaps its time I joined them.
Learn more about the work of the Refugee Council of Australia.
On 19 July, the Australian Government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, spelled the beginning of the end for the Refugee Convention. For at least the next 12 months, all asylum seekers arriving by boat will be transferred to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. In addition, those asylum seekers who are determined to be refugees will be resettled, not in Australia, but in Papua New Guinea. I put together a reader’s digest of media from far more well-informed writers who look at this agreement from every which angle. My intention with this post is slightly different than the commentary to date.
Owing to the sense of justice and compassion many of my friends on Facebook and Twitter have, the latest policy development was greeted with barely concealed rage. Many reflexively stated, “I am ashamed to be Australian”. I did not. I am not ashamed, but not because I do not feel a deep sense of injustice. It is because I am not a refugee. I probably never will be. I think my friends are ashamed because its got them questioning like the Black Eyed Peas, “Where is the love?” They are ashamed because they empathise with these asylum seekers: who they are, what they have been through, and what the future holds. But, we don’t know. We can’t empathise. We are not refugees (yes, inspiration here). I am not a refugee.
I am a white male, 29 years old with a great education and financial security. I have never been in conflict. I have always lived in peaceful countries. I can move across borders with ease. I have multiple forms of proof of identity. Yes, I have worked with refugees and they have shared their stories with me, a stranger. But, I will not have to live with the direct consequences of this new policy. I know ‘seeking asylum is a human right’ as a legal concept, but cannot begin to fathom what it feels like to seek asylum. I have not experienced persecution, witnessed the massacre of family and friends or feared for my life every day. Nor am I the person, the voter, this policy and advertisement above is designed to appeal to for the upcoming Australian federal election.
I am not a HR manager in Australia from Rwanda who grew up in a refugee camp in Tanzania and has no sympathy for boat arrivals because I see them as wealthy people able to purchase a seat from people smugglers. I am not a nurse on a temporary work visa from Goa, India, who has to pay for public health and education services until I become a permanent resident. I do not have a husband, who has to work two jobs, both at minimum wage, to pay for my children’s education and see every boat arrival as another 100 people who will push my chance at permanent residency further down the queue.
I am not a refugee. I am not a migrant. I am in no-man’s land. Seemingly powerless, yet all powerful.
Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. How do I empathise with the trauma, stress and fear of asylum seekers and refugees? When I was a history teacher, I would design empathy activities for my students studying trench warfare in WWI. We would read primary sources, examine photographs and read about the effects of mustard gas. The students would then have to write a letter, as a soldier, to a loved-one describing how they felt, their environment, their day-to-day existence. I did similar exercises when I was a student. We would read poems like Wilfred Owen’s horrifying Dulce Et Decorum Est, which still shocks me:
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Many refugees are displaced by conflict, and those from Syria may well have experienced the “misty panes and thick green light” of a gas attack. I cannot empathise with an Australian solider in WWI who suffered a mustard gas attack at Flanders nor a Syrian refugee in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan who suffered a sarin gas attack in Homs.
The notion of ‘identifiable victim bias’ is often evoked when talking about empathy; that by and large people will identify more with Hannah, a girl of five, who is missing in Sydney, than with a boat of 120 nameless and faceless asylum seekers from Sri Lanka off the coast of western Australia. And it is from such a bias that we make moral judgements in the politics of empathy. Paul Bloom, in a recent New Yorkerarticle argues that “Too often, our concern for specific individuals today means neglecting crises that will harm countless people in the future.”
He goes onto state that the act of making moral judgements, of empathy, is more than putting oneself in another’s shoes. As is the case with the Rwandan HR manager and the Indian nurse, empathy for others does not often extend beyond the tribe, beyond the family. Empathy begins at home. Paraphrasing Jeremy Rifkin and others, Bloom argues that the best hope is not to get others to think of all of humanity as family, that is impossible, but to appreciate “the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.”
I am not a refugee. I cannot empathise with a Hazara refugee girl living in limbo in Indonesia waiting for UNHCR to determine her refugee status. Nor will I be ashamed to be an Australian, and let the Australian Government be the arbiter of my moral judgements. I will make my own moral judgements, which is to place the same value on the life of an asylum seeker and refugee as I would on the life of my mother, my father and my brother.
This is a digest of news, opinions, comments and announcements concerning the recent agreement between Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG) to process asylum seekers and refugees. The so-called ‘PNG Solution’ will see all asylum seekers and refugees, who are travelling to Australia by boat, transferred to Manus Island for processing. Those determined to be refugees will be resettled not in Australia, but in PNG. The agreement is valid for 12 months.
“It is important to note that the term “asylum seeker” does not exist under the convention but is a politically expedient label given to people who are seeking recognition of their refugee status. Many asylum seekers (90% of those who have come to Australia in recent years by boat) are in fact refugees and have rights under the convention, regardless of whether or not Australia has processed their claim or recognised their refugee status.”
”’I say to Mr Rudd: stop making excuses, stop trying to say this is the world’s problem, it’s not. It’s our problem and we need to take the appropriate action in this country, by this country, for this country to stop the boats and we need to do it now,” Mr Abbott said.’
“And he went to Moresby prepared to offer major concessions to O’Neill’s three priorities for the relationship: re-establishing an AFP presence in key centres; focusing AusAID support even more on Moresby’s four priority ‘pillars’ of health, education, infrastructure, and law and justice; and introducing symbolic measures to reduce irritation with our stringent visa requirements.”
“All asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat will be sent to Papua New Guinea for processing and resettlement and none will be allowed to stay in the country, the prime minister has announced, as he sent out a draconian pre-election message that Australia’s borders are closed to refugees.”
‘Milne looked visibly moved as she continued: “The agreement that the prime minister has signed with the prime minister of PNG is ruthless and repugnant. It is in complete contravention with our moral obligations under the refugee convention.”’
“Far from “boundless plains to share”, Australia has sent a message to the world that we are a closed community willing to pay off anyone to get rid of an electoral problem. It’s Labor to the rotten core. It shames us all, because we are better than that.”
“This creates a co-dependency that is based on substantial Australian financial aid (to be largely carried by the aid budget) for the acceptance of our refugees. This sets worrying precedents for how our aid budget is spent (already Australia is the third biggest recipient of Australian foreign aid after PNG and Indonesia) and how dependent we will be in regards to our refugee treaty obligations that will be effectively serviced by PNG.”
“Indeed, Rudd’s announcement draws attention to a topic about which liberal Australia scarcely likes to think: namely, Australia’s role as an imperial power in the Pacific, behaving in the region much as the US does throughout the world.”
“The remaining 420 asylum seekers had been transferred to tents at a second detention camp under construction on another part of the tiny atoll, which is home to fewer than 10,000 people, the spokeswoman said.”
“Of major concern is that Papua New Guinea is in fact a producer of refugee applicants. It is therefore puzzling that Australia would seek to transfer asylum seekers there for processing and protection. The Australian Refugee Review Tribunal has granted refugee status to people fleeing persecution from PNG in recent years, many of whom are women.”
“Did anyone in government consider the practicalities of resettling refugees in PNG? Approximately 85 per cent of Papua New Guineans live in rural areas. Their access to land – which is essential to livelihoods – is assured through a customary system of tenure that is organised along kinship lines. Land ownership in rural areas will thus be barred to refugees, because they have no connection with indigenous clans and lineages so vital to rural life in PNG.”
‘The governor of Oro province, Gary Zuffa, has told 702 ABC Sydney the decision to settle refugees in Papua New Guinea could be very divisive. “Who’s going to finance that re-settlement? I’m assuming that Australia is,” he said. “If Australia is going to finance that re-settlement, then that’s going to create a bit of hostility from the local population because these people will be given funds to start a new business, start a new life.’
“With the Nauru centre destroyed and the Manus Island facility still a fraction of its planned capacity of 3000 people, the Rudd government must find more locations for people who are not considered genuine refugees.”
“A cargo cult mentality is alive and well in PNG and this afforded the necessary levers for the Australian prime minister to pull so deftly in his game-changing policy statement, which will almost certainly stem boat arrivals in the near term, until people smugglers and Australian activists are able to find paths around the absolutist decree that even legitimate asylum-seekers will now not find sanctuary in Australia.”
‘He said failed asylum seekers would have three options. “One, they remain in detention. Two, they return to their home country. Three, they get settled in another country where they have a right of residence.’
“The problem has never been that Australia gives too much aid; it’s that we’re throwing huge amounts of money to avoid a failed state on our doorstep by backing rapacious mining interests and overpaid consultants”.
“The EU asylum system shows it is possible for signatories to the refugee convention to transfer asylum seekers between one another. However, and it is a big “however”, certain regional standards and mechanisms must be in place for this to occur.”
“However, little has yet been said about another important question: how will lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) asylum seekers fare in a place where their identity is a cause for criminal sanction?”
“It is not unusual for the tribe in Papua New Guinea to protect and assist a tribesman even though such decisions could have negative consequences. And Kevin Rudd is no ordinary member of the tribe, he is a Big Man – the Prime Minister of Australia.”
“But even skilled, experienced Papua New Guineans can’t find jobs, and most university graduates cannot find employment. PNG has a tiny formal economy – meaning that there are not that many formal, paid jobs such as being an accountant, hairdresser or bus driver.”
“The decision to send all boat people for processing and resettlement in PNG is a huge bluff – Rudd is calculating that asylum seekers will no longer want to come to Australia now, if they know that there is no hope for resettlement and instead they will wind up permanently in PNG.”
“Prime Minister O’Neill has made it no secret since his election in 2012 that he wanted to see a total re-alignment of the Australia’s half-a billion dollar a year aid program to support his government’s priorities.”
“Mr Fraser branded the camps on Manus Island and Nauru ”Australian gulags”, with conditions as bad as at the worst forced-labour camps of the Soviet Union. His comments came as an inquest in Perth heard criticism of searchers over the loss at sea of more than 100 asylum seekers last year.”
”’But for me any country in the world is better than going back to Sri Lanka. I can’t go back to Sri Lanka,” the 28-year-old said, adding that he did not think the Australian government’s new policy would change anything.’
Having met and worked with hundreds of asylum seekers, the most common story I am told is that asylum seekers don’t choose Australia. An agent (asylum seekers and refugees do not call them people smugglers) organises everything for them and they flee, very often without time for goodbyes, an ability to inform family members (for fear of reprisal), preparation or research. They just leave in fear of their lives hoping to reach a safe place.
In order to live, they flee their country without time to watch the Australian Government’s Youtube video telling them that entry via the ocean is the ‘wrong way’ and to ‘go back’. And, as the Australian Government attempts to spread their ‘No Advantage’ message to remote areas of the world, believe it or not there are still many isolated villages of the world without WiFi to access this message.
In fact, a number of asylum seekers I have met said they only realised they were going to Australia as their boat left Indonesia. They didn’t have an opportunity to request a final destination, as this is usually decided by the agent. Some thought they were going to the UK, Canada or Europe, and most people wouldn’t mind being placed in any safe country, so long as they are protected and given rights to participate in society and become active members of their new nation.
The Australian Government’s ‘No Advantage’ slogan from their latest policy on immigration is out of touch with reality on numerous levels. The policy is supposed to neutralise the ‘waiting period’ between those asylum seekers who have arrived to Australian territories or the mainland since August 13th 2012 and those who live in places like Jakarta, seeking out protection and relocation to a third country.
I have been told by asylum seekers living in Indonesia that resettlement via UNHCR in Jakarta takes approximately 12-18 months and resettlement via Kuala Lumpur takes approximately 24 months. So, why is the government threatening asylum seekers in Manus and Nauru Island that they will be living in Regional Processing Centres for up to five years?
Some regional host countries, and many host countries around the world (Kenya, Pakistan) do not have the capacity, finance, human resources or lack of corruption and commitment to transparency to fairly process refugees, which are real challenges that contribute to longer processing times. They may also have a lot of their own national social concerns that they are struggling to deal with and hosting and processing refugees is not their priority. Australia, on the other hand, has the organisational capacity to process asylum seeker claims in a timely manner, but chooses not too. Why? To be tough. To deter.
Which brings us back to the original point of frustration; deterrence only works if those who are fleeing danger are not refugees. If Australia kept finding out that those who they processed as asylum seekers were not refugees, the policy may have some logic behind it in the eyes of policy makers. However, the fact that around 90% of asylum seekers who arrive by boat are found to be refugees proves that people are fleeing their homelands because of a well-founded fear of persecution.
Despite regurgitated messages from tabloid media that we are being flooded by so called evil illegal economic migrants, we simply are not. Why should we deter refugees who have suffered fear, persecution, kidnapping, bombings, murders of family members and other horrific human rights violations? When somebody tells you that the Taliban have kidnapped their family members and threatened to kill them and they fear for their life and they are fighting for their life and freedom, on what grounds does Australia stand to tell asylum seekers to go back to where they came from? Maybe when Australia wants to turn the boats back they could provide each asylum seeker a shovel to dig their own graves? Is Australia really that compassionless? By the current state of refugee issues, unfortunately, I fear so.
The principals of ‘No Advantage’ should be based on fairness and equity. Why then is the Australian Government sending handfuls of people to languish in remote offshore detention facilities, while other people that arrived on the same boat as these asylum seekers from a similar background and story are granted bridging visas, living in the Australian community?
Where is the transparency and explanation about why particular people are being sent to Nauru and Manus islands while others are not?
“The Pacific Solution” and the “Regional Frameworks” for dealing with refugee issues are empty policies. They are not solutions or genuine multilateral approaches that are working together in the region. If the government genuinely wanted to produce a fair and equitable approach to dealing with refugees and asylum seekers in the Asia Pacific region then they should be providing more support in places like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Pakistan, India and other regional hubs with high numbers of asylum seekers living in limbo; not dumping asylum seekers in remote areas of the Pacific.
The Australian Government could use its political influence to persuade these regions to make life more tolerable for those who have escaped their countries by allowing work rights, education for their children and greater access to health services. They could even finance this type of support by stopping outlandishly expensive remote detention facilities.
Finally, Australia, it’s time to get a life and think about the globe that we live in as humankind together. Just because we are geographically isolated from most of the planet doesn’t mean that our attitudes need to be as well. We don’t live in a rosy, harmonious war-free world. There are so many injustices, conflicts and awful atrocities that affect innocent people. People who like you and me, have families, dreams, aspirations, love stories and a desire to live in peace and maybe one day even buy a house and grow a garden. Australia, your current policies are absolutely awful and non-humanitarian. They are destroying people’s lives.
The tragic discovery of 13 bodies 125 km from the coast of Christmas Island last week, with more than 50 people still unaccounted for, is a harsh reminder that government policies aiming to deter asylum seekers from taking dangerous boat journeys to Australia are failing.
Many asylum seekers and refugees in Central and Southeast Asia are in transit from their conflict-ridden home countries, such as Afghanistan, Burma, and Sri Lanka, to resettlement countries such as Australia.
People are forced to flee persecution with few options of escape without assistance from people smugglers, who can facilitate their journey and accompany them to safety.
The existence of people smugglers is a political reality states have a genuine interest in eradicating, as exploitative practices preying on desperate people cannot be accepted in a law-abiding society. But is punishing smugglers – who often assist asylum seekers and are their only way to safety – more important than protecting the asylum seekers and refugees themselves?
States throughout the region, including Australia, have increasingly sought to seal their borders by stemming what they believe to be ‘pull factors’ – forces that draw people to a new location – by resorting to punitive measures such as offshore processing, detention, and bureaucracies that makes it increasingly difficult to file asylum claims.
Australia’s current suite of policies, including offshore processing, mandatory detention, and the excision of all Australian territory from the migration zone, is designed to deter asylum seekers from arriving by boat. But the problem lies not with the insecurity of Australian borders, but in the lack of durable solutions for refugees elsewhere in the region.
The so-called ‘push factors’ (forces driving people from their homes) are stronger than ‘pull factors.’ Curbing ‘pull factors’ therefore only leads to greater human rights violations and despair.
The Opposition in Canberra ignores this inconvenient truth and claims changes to asylum policy made by the Rudd Government in 2008, such as the abandonment of offshore processing and Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) has led to the resurgence in boat arrivals. The Labor party now seem to agree.
But a growing body of research in Europe on the extent to which asylum seekers are able to exercise choice when it comes to their destination country, and their reasons for choosing certain countries over others, shows that “asylum seekers generally have limited options available to them, and choices are made within a very narrow field of possibilities.”
Generally, asylum seekers are not well informed on specific policies and procedures, and their decisions are limited by other factors such as “a lack of protection in the country of first asylum, geography, finances, available travel routes, visa options, and the networks and routes used by people smugglers,” according to Harriet Spinks, a researcher on Australia and migration policy.
A member of the government’s Expert Panel, Paris Aristotle, has called for an end to the political wrangling that has led to the current impasse in establishing a humane plan to manage the movement of asylum seekers through the region.
It is highly unlikely that a bipartisan deal will be struck this close to the election, with the incumbent Labor government insisting that the roadblock lies with the Opposition’s unwillingness to support the Malaysia Solution, where asylum seekers’ applications would have been processed in Malaysia, and the Liberals insisting that the only way to “stop the boats” is to tow them back to Indonesia.
No single measure will stop boat arrivals in Australia, and in fact ‘stopping the boats’ should not be the core objective of what is needed: a regional approach to managing the movements of people that places the protection of asylum seekers ahead of national politics and border protection.
A regional approach
As one of the most developed countries in the region, Australia offers the best capacity to protect refugees and take the lead in establishing a regional approach to asylum. But perceived national security interests and domestic politics have undermined its ability to lead by example. The current political impasse must be overcome and both sides of politics need to form a bipartisan approach before meaningful collaboration with other states can occur.
A regional approach to asylum must address the protection of refugees as a result of their onward movement, and it must be acknowledged that often the reason refugees continue to move onwards is the lack of protection in transit countries.
In Thailand, for example, refugees, including women and children, can be arrested and imprisoned at any time. Without the right to work, or any government institutions to assist them, refugees wait in limbo for years without any means of survival or the ability to legally become self-sufficient.
Cooperation, consistency, and subscribing to universally accepted standards of protection are the only way forward to ensure more equitable responsibility sharing for states and enhance protection for refugees transiting through the Asia Pacific region.
However, the root causes of displacement must be recognised and addressed too.
Standardising procedures means refugees would face the same treatment, no matter where they went. Increasing protection in transit countries, such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, will reduce the need for onward movement.
Asylum seekers and refugees need to be recognised as distinct from other migrants. They should be issued with temporary documents to avoid being detained under immigration laws, and be given temporary work permits and access to public utilities, including schools and hospitals.
Resettlement countries such as the U.S., Canada, and Australia should consider increasing their quotas for humanitarian visas, and work towards decreasing the waiting time for resettlement in transit countries.
The UNHCR must reduce and harmonise the waiting period for asylum seekers and refugees to be recognised, as well as ensuring that decisions are transparent and fair in accordance with UNHCR’s own procedural standards.
With increased funding for the provision of vital services such as healthcare, psychosocial support, legal assistance, and education, civil society can also play a vital role in strengthening refugee protection in the region.
A regional approach is possible if the political will can be found.
The Australian Federal Government has once again earned the ire of NGOs, refugee advocacy groups and any one with a sense of social justice. It announced that $375 million (or 7.2% of Australia’s 2012-3 aid budget of $5.2 billion) will be “used to pay for the expenses of asylum seekers on the Australian mainland” (ABC News, 18 December 2012).
Senator Bob Carr, Australia’s Foreign Minister, justifies this allocation: “As the OECD sees it, money spent supporting refugees on your own soil is a valid expenditure of aid money”. And, although the response from Australia’s aid/development sector has been swift in denouncing the move, Mr. Carr is correct. Grinch or not, Australia can, and already does, do this; and so do many other OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) member countries.
This is not a ‘cut’ in Australia’s aid as many are claiming. It is a re-allocation. However, neither perhaps is it a standard practice (read: accounting practice) that should still exist. It is indicative and representative of a global aid system that fails to allocate aid in ways that could have the greatest and most transparent impact.
To under what this $375 million decision means, we need to get beyond the rhetoric of #dontcutaid, and delve into the murky abyss that is OECD DAC reporting guidelines and directives.
“In-donor refugee costs”
This is the label for the line item in OECD country’s reported aid budget referring to money spent in-country on the needs of refugees. According to the OECD, specific instruction on reporting was first introduced in 1988, in which donor countries could report expenditures on refugees as aid. This directive has essentially remained unchanged since.
In 2010, only $4.4 million (or 0.17% of Australia’s aid budget) was ‘in-donor refugee costs’. This year was also the first year Australia allocated any significant part of its aid budget to ‘in-donor refugee costs’. According to OECD statistics, between 2006-2008, nothing was reported in Australia’s aid budget as ‘in-donor refugee costs’.
Needless to say, this is a very significant increase, and may be justified in the context of increasing the annual number of refugees resettled in Australia by 6,000 (per the recommendations of the independent review panel earlier this year).
This is a standard practice of OECD countries. The Netherlands and Norway, both which have strong refugee resettlement programs, allocated 5.3% and 7.3% of their 2010 aid budget respectively to ‘in-donor refugee costs’. Switzerland allocated a sizeable 15.9% of its aid budget.
Indeed, ‘in-donor refugee costs’ are trending. According to OECD DAC reporting, “Over the period 2006-10, the total volume of ODA in-donor refugee costs reported by DAC members has doubled in nominal terms, from USD 1.8 billion to USD 3.6 billion. The share in total net ODA has also risen steadily from 1.6% to 2.5% over the same period”.
Is it aid?
Yes, technically it is Official Development Assistance (ODA); the DAC’s official term for the aid its member countries disburse. But, there are a number of things to keep in mind in light of Mr. Carr’s announcement and our response to it.
1. It may be used to cover a variety of expenditures beyond basic necessities. The $375 million will be used for “expenditures for the sustenance of refugees in donor countries during the first twelve months of their stay. This includes payments for refugees’ transport to the host country and temporary sustenance (food, shelter and training); these expenditures should not be allocated geographically” [This is according to Line I.A.8.2 Refugees in donor countries (code 1820) of the DAC Statistical Reporting Directives]. However, there is no standard practice in this regard, and the costs of various assistance programs can also be covered (e.g. professional training, administrative costs, police, interpretation, or counselling, resettlement assistance for quota refugees).
2. According to the Government, it has already ‘released’ 400 asylum seekers on bridging visas while their claims are assessed. However, according to the above DAC guidelines, only 12 months of expenditures can be covered under ‘in-donor refugee costs’.
3. Australia could spend the money to cover costs of detention centres on Nauru and Christmas Island. The costs, expenditures and ‘type’ of refugee covered vary from country to country. For example, many countries, including the Netherlands and Norway, spend ‘in-donor refugee costs’ while asylum seekers are waiting for a decision on their claim to refugee status. Others, including Canada and the U.S, allocate it cover expenditures after a decision has been made regarding asylum seekers’ claim (see table below for an overview). This includes the expenditures on asylum seekers who have their claims rejected.
4. The average cost per refugee under this budget item varies from country to country. In Canada, it was just above an average of USD10,000 for 12 months in 2009. In Belgium, the average was over USD32,500 for 12 months for the same year. Clearly, the $375 million will not just cover the 12-month expenditures of the 400 asylum seekers on bridging visas (unless the Government spends $937,000 per asylum seeker over 12 months).
The Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) has called on the Australian Government to identify what programs will be cut as a result of this re-allocation. In addition, the Australian Government should further identify, in the current spirit of transparency and accountability, what ‘in-donor refugee costs’ will be covered by the $375 million.
In 1994, concerns were expressed by a number of DAC member countries to a Working Party, and the Secretariat recommended phasing out the reporting of ‘in-donor refugee costs’. That is, many members felt that the 12-month up-keep of refugees in donor countries should no longer be reportable as ODA. However, no consensus was reached. Austria, Germany and Japan originally objected. The Director of Development Co-operation Directorate (DCD) wrote to delegations in June 1994, observing that:
“Members have increasingly come to query the developmental relevance of expenditure on refugees in developed countries…Moreover, the ODA definition requires expenditures to be made ‘with the promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries” as [the] main objective’. Thus ODA-eligibility depends on the intention of the donor at the time of the transaction, not on the ultimate impact of the transaction….As donor assistance to incoming refugees is designed to meet their welfare needs, and not to promote the development of their countries of origin, it falls outside the ODA definition, even though it is patently a component of humanitarian assistance…”.
The Director then suggested that each member country create a schedule of how to achieve the elimination of ‘in-donor refugee costs’ from ODA by the year 2000. When member states reconvened on this issue after 2000, and after extensive statistical research and dialogue, there was still no consensus by 2002.
Australia, at the time, wanted to maintain ODA reporting of these ‘in-donor refugee costs’. Although Australia is under no obligation to either report or not report, the Federal Government could join Korea and Luxembourg as the only other DAC member countries that do not report ‘in-donor refugee costs’ as foreign aid; and become a true leader in calling for the more effective allocation of aid.
It is scientific fact that human’s emissions of greenhouse gases, together with the destruction of carbon sinks (e.g. forests), are causing changes in our climate. It should therefore should not be a matter of ‘debate’, in the same way that we understand that there is a relationship between smoking and cancer. I find myself perplexed by sections of the general public who still listen to and internalise the views of media and industry personalities who have an ‘opinion’ on Climate Change science, without appropriate qualifications. I’m extremely concerned by the findings in the latest Lowy Institute Poll which shows a severe decline over the past six years in the number of Australians who think Climate Change is a serious and pressing problem which should be acted on now (down to 36% in 2012 from 68% in 2006 – see Figure 1 below).
The world’s most qualified and experienced climate scientists, like James Hansen, the Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the most honored climate commentators, such as Bill McKibben, continue to warn us that Climate Change is here, and that it’s worse than expected. Scientific projections have already been exceeded, and we’re hurtling towards a number of irreversible tipping points, with potentially catastrophic consequences for humanity.
The socio-economic impacts of Climate Change are enormous and the implications for human well-being are frightening. However, there’s a stark disconnect between those countries who are causing the problem, and those countries which will be hardest hit. As you can see highlighted in the map below (Figure 2), the countries facing extreme risks under Climate Change scenarios are predominantly poor developing nations in Asia and Africa, whilst those countries facing low risks are predominantly the wealthy developed nations who are largely responsible for anthropogenic Climate Change, through greenhouse gas emissions (Figure 3) and driving the market demands which have lead to forest (carbon sink) loss.
Despite James Hansen’s calls earlier this year highlighting Climate Change as a ‘moral issue on par with slavery’, it’s still failed to spark the moral outrage one might expect of it. In an enlightening piece by Markowitz and Sherrif in Nature (but more accessible in article by David Roberts in Grist) the authors explain why it hasn’t, but how it could. Although they point to the abstractness and cognitive complexity of Climate Change as one of the factors, I think that the authors missed a crucial, finer element in their analysis, which is that many of the people who will be hit hardest by Climate Change, still don’t even have a word for ‘Climate Change’ in their languages (such as in Khmer in Cambodia). Maybe the fact that the ‘victims’ do not understand Climate Change, ‘where it’s coming from’ and who’s responsible is key as to why Climate Change has not yet become the moral issue it could.
In these countries, Climate Change will lead to increased frequencies and intensities of drought, flooding, coastal inundation and erosion, storms and other weather-related disasters. These hazards will have a number of direct and indirect effects on people and communities, including reduced availability of and access to land and natural resources, threatening food and water security, and therefore livelihoods and mortality. Individuals, families and communities will attempt to adapt to changing environmental conditions, but many will be forced to use mobility as a last resort adaptation strategy, leaving their homes in order to survive. This has the potential to trigger conflicts with other communities, as an increasing number of people compete for a decreasing amount of resources. A recent study by UNHCR in the Horn of Africa found that that cross-border movement hardly ever occurs as a direct reaction to climatic stress. However, this is under today’s climate conditions, and we understand future stresses to be of magnitudes never experienced by humans before, which could affect whole countries and regions. However, the report also stated that UNHCR has also observed that environmental considerations are increasingly affecting the movement of refugees and internally displaced persons in the East and Horn of Africa.
The same study found that violent conflicts, and state failure and repression, reduced the capacity of communities exposed to extreme weather events to cope with and adapt to these climate-related hazards, resulting in an increased vulnerability to other more severe political factors, which lead to their forced migration. The interaction between Climate Change and conflict was acknowledged by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in 2007 and awareness of climate change as a threat to issues of peace and national and international security is building. Late last year, the United States Department of Defense released a report on ‘Trends and Implications of Climate Change for National and International Security’.
There is a growing body of empirical evidence on the links between Climate Change and human mobility. Although there are no agreed definitions, academic literature uses terms such as environmental or climate change migration, environmentally induced or forced migration, ecological or environmental refugees, and climate change refugees. The lack of clear definitions relates to two issues:
The difficulty of isolating environmental or climate-related factors from other drivers of migration.
Debate as to whether environmental/climate related migration is forced or voluntary. Many commentators argue that it should be considered along a continuum.
At this point in time, UNHCR has rejected the concept of environmental or climate refugee, stating that the 1951 Refugee Convention protects those escaping from Climate Change-induced events only under specific circumstances which can be interpreted as “persecution” on one of five grounds set out in the Convention. Is it time then, to review this convention? Or develop a new convention to sit alongside it, to ensure that future climate refugees’ human rights are protected and provided for? The inaction of governments on an international scale to address Climate Change could be considered covert global tyranny on already poverty-stricken and vulnerable societies. We have a collective responsibility to protect and aide these people, particularly considering that we are the ones who have caused this issue in the first place.
How many climate refugees there will be in the future is a controversial topic. One of the most cited figures is Oxford University’s Norman Myer’s estimation of 150-200 million extra displaced people due to Climate Change, by 2050.
To understand the magnitude of this figure, the current number of displaced people globally is 42.5 million people – only one-third to one-quarter of Myer’s estimation (Asylum Seeker Resource Centre). This includes:
15.2 million refugees (10.4 million under UNHCR mandate and 4.8 million Palestinians under UNRWA mandate)
895, 285 asylum seekers
26.4 million internally displaced persons
Two of the most important questions regarding future climate refugees are:
Where will they go?
Who will pay?
Perhaps those responsible for creating the problems (ie. Climate Change) that result in the ‘forced’ displacement of people from their homes should either provide relocation for these people within their own countries, and/or finance the costs associated with Climate Change adaptation (including internal relocation) and disaster relief and restoration?
How would the number of refugees required to be accepted, or the amount of funding to be provided, be determined? Perhaps it could be determined via calculations of historical/cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, as this measure indicates the extent of individuals and society’s collective responsibility for Climate Change and the hazards it causes. It is also indicative of the quality of life citizens have been ‘lucky enough’ to have enjoyed for so long, despite it being at the expense of other people’s (future) quality of life. This would be a fair approach, and perhaps one not too unlikely to be advocated for under international law by those affected?
I often wonder whether Climate Change could one day lead to developing countries filing a negligence case (or equivalent) against developed countries? Because developed countries are currently not exercising reasonable care or taking into account the potential harm they are foreseeably causing to other people. Victims would be able to prove:
That greenhouse gas emissions released by human activity caused accelerated global climate change far above and beyond the ‘natural’ background changes;
That governments had known that greenhouse gases caused human-induced global climate change since the mid-late 1800s. The United Nations held its first conference on Climate Change in 1979;
That these governments were aware of the potential impacts of human-induced global Climate Change since at least 1979, with scientific projections becoming more refined over time;
That these governments had consciously chosen not to take appropriate action to avoid or mitigate Climate Change and its impacts, through not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, for example;
That citizens of these countries had been responsible for emitting ‘X’ amount of greenhouse gases.
Despite calculations of statistics regarding climate refugees being problematic, and international frameworks for climate refugees not yet being in existence, it would be wise for the world to plan on dealing with a sizable increase in the number of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and stateless people in the future, with more people affected the more the climate, and consequentially the environment which underpins societies and economies, changes.
With this in mind, it would be in everyone’s best interests to take action on climate change now, to avoid or reduce the future social, economic and ecological costs associated with it, in both developing and developed countries.
It is also essential that governments improve policies and processes in relation to refugees and asylum seekers now, as these systems will undoubtedly be handling much higher numbers of people and therefore be under much more pressure, within coming decades.
I also hope, that the UNHCR and related organisations continue to explore and clarify terminology around this topic, and make progress on putting in place frameworks to ensure appropriate protection and assistance is provided to ‘climate change refugees’ in the future. Doing so may also have the benefit of driving greater efforts on the climate change mitigation and adaptation fronts, which will act to delay and/or reduce the scale of climate-related impacts on communities, and in some cases will help avoid their forced migration.
Stepping off the plane, Mohsen Soltany was confused – he didn’t think the weather in the United Kingdom would be this hot. Baffled, he questioned the immigration officer.
“UK?”. No – not the UK. He was in Perth. Perth, Australia.
Soltany arrived in Australia in 1999 via Malaysia – or Singapore, he’s not sure – on a journey which started in Iran and traced through Turkey. A people smuggling network arranged his flight to Perth, a city Soltany had no knowledge of before his arrival.
Not that he would get the opportunity to acquaint himself: after declaring himself a refugee, Soltany was transported directly to Perth Detention Centre. His next four years were spent behind the razor wire in various Australian immigration detention centres.
Staying in Iran wasn’t an option. Soltany loves his country, but firmly believes he faced certain death after trying to expose government corruption.
Through his work, Soltany – then a politically active man in his late twenties – was exposed to the corrupt dealings of the government, and was also privy to information about Iran’s infamous chain murders. After penning an anonymous letter to a newspaper condemning the government, Soltany’s house was searched by officials. Although not home at the time, he says “I knew I had to leave”.
While Soltany’s unplanned arrival in Australia is symbolic of the vulnerability of asylum seekers, it is perhaps also illustrative of how government policy – however strict – cannot deter people from fleeing danger and seeking refuge here. Most of those people, like Soltany, will arrive by plane. And many will spend months, even years, in detention centres.
Ian Rintoul first knew Soltany as a name in Villawood Detention Centre. Rintoul makes it his business to know who is behind the razor wire: he is spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, the group at the epicentre of Sydney’s refugee campaign. His involvement in refugee issues stretches back to the early 1990s, but he pinpoints the Howard era and rise of Pauline Hanson as pivotal to his participation in the movement. When he claims that in recent years government policies on asylum seekers have both “improved and worsened”, his laugh reveals the irony is not lost on him.
“While superficial characteristics and administrative things have changed, the fundamental underpinnings of the refugee issues in Australia haven’t changed”, Rintoul declares. He believes that Gillard government strategies – such as mandatory detention, “stopping the boats”, and regional processing centres – mean “we’re back with all the essentials of the policies we had under the Howard government”.
Rintoul considers the “absolute punitive quality” of detention as one of the worst aspects of asylum seeker policy. Nearly 4,500 people are currently held in Australian immigration detention facilities, with a further 1,300 under residence determination in the community. Rintoul cites overcrowding, a lack of services, and social isolation as instrumental to the self-harm and mental health problems within the detention centres.
Amnesty International has also criticised the conditions in detention centres, deeming them “unacceptable”. The organisation inspected several Australian detention centres and reported that detainees are “at grave risk of self-harm and mental illness”. It claims that morale is deteriorating and attempted suicides are on the rise. Of particular concern are conditions at Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre, where stays are lengthy and the incidence of self-harm is increasing.
28-year-old Rachel Connor* has been to Christmas Island. As a volunteer English teacher at the detention centre for six weeks in 2010, she witnessed the fragile mental state of many of the detainees.
“The truth is that almost all of the refugees suffered from some form of mental disturbance from being in the centres, as well as the complex history of trauma they carry from previous experience”, reports Connor. She outlines some of the restrictions placed on the detained asylum seekers, such as “timed and monitored” recreation time. She says that detainees are not free to come and go, and that parts of the facility seem “like a prison”.
Nevertheless, Connor believes her English classes had a direct benefit on the asylum seekers, as she says the routine task of practicing the language gave them a focus, “in a context where every day feels the same without progress. Myself and many of the other teachers knew that a lot of our students would not wake up in the morning if it weren’t for our classes”.
Connor’s students told her it was the only thing they looked forward to in the day.
Soltany’s four years in detention were spent divided between Perth, Port Hedland and Villawood detention centres. Sipping tea in his inner-city lounge room crammed with musical instruments, the now 40-year-old musician and poet contemplates the years he lost. Soltany wavers between calm reflection and palpable anger. At times his rage spills over and projects him off his seat. His brow furrows as his voice rises, and his gaze fixes on a point somewhere else – somewhere beyond the room.
“I went very mental”, he admits. “They’re not respecting very basic human rights in detention”. Contacting the media and attempting to speak out about the conditions became a constant undertaking for Soltany. “Any channel that we could get the numbers, I would tell them – this is happening, we are on hunger strike, people here stitched their lips. I told them what was happening”, he says.
He witnessed and experienced physical violence and was also placed in isolation. Released from detention in 2003, Soltany now possesses permanent residency. He is in regular contact with many detainees in the centres, and says the conditions are “still bad”. But Soltany is adamant that the worst feature of detention is the uncertainty.
“You don’t know what will happen, that is the worst part. And you don’t know any day they can come to deport you – that is when people get stressed”, he says. “All the people going to the top of the roof and doing all this stuff, because they think maybe tomorrow… That makes them stressed”.
Rintoul agrees that the indefinite aspect of detention deeply affects asylum seekers. And so does the terminology often used to refer to them.
According to those who work with refugees, and to refugees themselves, terms such as “boat people” and “illegals” are not only misleading but also have a directly harmful effect. Nevertheless, these terms are common in the public domain – despite the fact that over 95% of asylum seekers travel to Australia by plane, and as Connor points out, “there is nothing illegal about seeking asylum”.
Research shows that the terminology does have an effect on public opinion: most people believe that the majority of asylum seekers arrive via boat.
Gode Mfashingabo works at refugee support centre the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS). The refugee youth worker believes that these terms have become common as they are “much easier and more provocative to use than any other words”. Mfashingabo says that the media and politicians will use “whatever words necessary to destabilise and drive their point across”.
Soltany says that this terminology “absolutely” has a direct effect on refugees, and that it “hurts deeply – a lot”. He explains that as an asylum seeker he was variously referred to as an “illegal immigrant”, “queue jumper” and even a “terrorist”.
“Where is the queue? You run away for your life – hello, they wanna kill me! There is no queue”, Soltany says. He vigorously rejects the likelihood that the public accurately understands refugee issues. Soltany refers to his poem The Only Hope After God:
“We were the fan for the political fire, Now we find ourselves in the flames”. His poem describes being stuck in a “quagmire of prejudice”.
Mfashingabo, himself a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), agrees that the public perception of refugees is fundamentally flawed. “What they have is pretty much propaganda that is spun through the media”, he claims. “The public has been misinformed incredibly”. Mfashingabo lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for three years after his ethnic group was stripped of its citizenship rights. He cannot return to the DRC as he believes it would “amount to suicide”. He says that some people’s only option is to seek refuge in another country, but what drives that decision is rarely mentioned in the media.
“Nothing serious is being discussed. Out of sight, out of mind”, Mfashingabo says, lamenting an often trivial media which features stories about shopping addiction and skateboarding dogs.
Rintoul strongly believes the public perception is “coloured” by the way refugees and asylum seekers are presented by the media and politicians. He claims that the language is deliberate.
“It’s to create a picture, to create an attitude, to invite a particular way of looking at refugees”, Rintoul says. “When the media do it, it’s not an accident. I mean, there have been Press Council findings that asylum seekers are not illegal and the boats are not illegal and should not be referred to in that way. They are constantly referred to in that way”.
In Rintoul’s eyes, this language and the detention of asylum seekers are techniques of delegitimising them.
Soltany yells into the loudspeaker. His voice reverberates throughout Sydney’s Town Hall courtyard, and is then echoed by 150 protestors. Fijian man Josefa Rauluni died after jumping off a roof at Villawood Detention Centre a few days earlier, and the protest was organised hastily to condemn the government’s policy of mandatory detention. Two of Soltany’s years in detention were spent at Villawood, and he says he was stressed and shocked upon hearing the news of Rauluni’s death. He reveals that he witnessed several suicides during his years in detention.
The suicide of a young Afghan man at Curtin Detention Centre last March was the fifth suicide in Australian immigration detention within a seven-month period. Several months later, a Tamil refugee poisoned himself and died at Villawood Detention Centre. These deaths highlight an intensifying and pervading sense of hopelessness amongst detainees.
Soltany wrote poetry in detention to help express his feelings of despair – “as a companion to my mind”. His poems were dark, prompting his roommate to urge him, “Please write something about hope!”. But Soltany says he couldn’t: “I couldn’t find hope”. He kept writing throughout his time in detention, and in 2010 he released a book of his poetry, Inside Out. His poetry has received wide acclaim, and he has even collaborated on a book with writer Tom Keneally, whom he considers a good friend.
Post-detention, becoming a refugee advocate was a natural step for Soltany. He has also taken on a case worker role for many asylum seekers to assist with their claims. Despite his distressing experiences in detention, he loves Australia and has started to recover from his mental trauma. Music was central to Soltany’s healing process, and is something he is actively pursuing with his band. He hopes that his book of poetry will help people to understand the suffering of those in detention, a place he says crushed his spirit.
Rintoul is in it for the long haul – he always knew it would be a long-term campaign. He says that although the campaign “always” faces opposition from the government, he is boosted by the small successes. He retrieves a piece of paper from his desk – “a little list of unfinished business”. He counts and laughs: there are 16 points on the list, and he says “I think there are two of them that we’ve won”.
Rintoul believes the razor wire is emblematic: that it “cuts” Australian society by embedding a discrimination which impacts on the wider community.
“That razor wire also imprisons us, as long as we allow its existence”.
As of yesterday, the Australian Labor Party has indicated that offshore processing of asylum seekers is dead. For now. But does this indicate a new era of clean conscience for our government? A born-again Machine Gun Preacher-like about face towards a more humane approach to those who need our help? Will it mean that Labor will start representing those on the left who originally stood tall with them, and desist from playing bare hairy-chested politics with the Opposition, who will stop at nothing to prove time and time again how masculine their party really can be?
Unfortunately, not likely.
The story of how our government treats refugees opened many, many years ago, but perhaps the final chapter in this section began back in May. Prime Minister Gillard announced the Malaysia Solution, which involved sending 800 boat arrivals to Malaysia for processing. In return, Australia would take 4000 processed refugees into our community. Even for the least cynically minded amongst us, this announcement was one that was hard to fathom, not in the least because of the lack of long term vision involved. Only 800 arrivals? In the 5 months that it has taken for that proposal to well and truly be buried, more than that 800 have already arrived on our shores.
This really begs the question – what was the government trying to achieve? Perhaps it was just dipping its toes into the water, testing it out a little to see if the deal would fly. Given the appallingly low approval rate of the Prime Minister, it seems like a rather risky tactic. Either way, come August 31st, the deal was well and truly pickled when the High Court ruled that the solution was illegal.
What we saw next was an appalling act of “leadership” by the government, who then sought to have the Migration Act amended, effectively overruling the High Court, so that the deal proposed could become legal. In what is truly an amazingly desperate move, Gillard then sought the support of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, saying that he would come off looking better if he was aligned to the government, because his political stance would be be more firmly entrenched on the “right”. In the end, Abbott refused to give support, not because, like the High Court, he feared for the safety and well-being of the asylum seekers being sent to Malaysia. Rather because it simply wasn’t the solution that he had chosen.
Yesterday, we saw the Gillard government coming to grips with the fact that, for now at least, the Malaysia solution is dead in the water (poor pun I know). However, that is not to say that it will not be resurrected later. In fact in yesterday’s announcement, Gillard and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen made it clear that the Malaysia solution was something that will be actively pursued.
But, did the government take the opportunity to at least take the moral high ground on the matter, and rub it in the face of the Opposition to show them once and for all that offshore processing was a morally bankrupt policy? Let’s have a look at the message that our Prime Minister had for her opposite number:
“We are at risk of seeing more boats. If we do see that, there is one person to blame, Tony Abbott, for this mindless negativity, his reckless strategy which has brought offshore processing to an end.”
To put it simply, the cynic in me sees yesterday’s announcement as little more than a way to publicly put the Malaysia solution to bed (well for a nanny nap perhaps), while taking the opportunity to take a big stab at Tony Abbott and declare that any boats that arrived from here on in were on his watch, not hers. Frankly, she’d have more luck selling iPads to the Amish than that idea to the Australian public.
Amongst yesterday’s announcement were also some promising details about mandatory detention. If offshore processing is not going to continue, what’s going to happen to the asylum seekers who would otherwise be processed offshore? The answer is that while mandatory detention will continue, the government will be issuing more bridging visas and trying to process more refugees in the community. However, more detention centres, in Wickham Point in Darwin and at Yongah Hill in Western Australia, will be opened to handle the overflowing facilities currently used. I would have thought given that the cost of mandatory detention per asylum seeker is approximately $113,000, the government would be looking at other options rather than building more facilities, even if these facilities are overcrowded as is.
It’s worth making the point here that although offshore processing is currently off the cards, which is a significant step forward for a more rights-based and cost-effective solution for asylum seekers, mandatory detention is still an evil that exists. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship has stressed that mandatory detention exists for administrative, rather than deterrent value. If that is the case, then how come Chris Bowen is able to announce that the bulk of new boat arrivals will be processed in community using bridging visas? More to the point, why are almost all asylum seekers who arrive by plane not kept in mandatory detention? How are they able to be processed free of hoopla?
The fact of the matter is that mandatory detention, like the Malaysia solution, is a way in which the government can look like it has a control over the situation, and on those who arrive seeking asylum. It’s important for them to look like they have control over the situation when in reality, there are much greater causes at play, as Brendan has already outlined on this site. The entire point is deterrence (or at least the pretense of it). In which case, the policy is flawed either (a) morally, because it seeks to harm the people who are needing our help the most, and/or (b) pragmatically, because it’s just for show and doesn’t work.
Recently Prime Minster Gillard was nominated in the Atlantic’s list of Brave Thinkers for 2011, because of her insistence at pushing through the Carbon Tax, despite great opposition to it, and the damage to her popularity. The write up admitted that it wasn’t sure whether this act was a move of political expedience or principled values, but it acknowledged that Gillard was following what she believed in, and staking her claim on it. Now that we’ve seen a softening of Labor’s stance on asylum seekers, will we see some clear direction that her party will follow a line that it believes in, instead of changing their course when it suits them at the time? Only time will tell, but for one, I won’t be holding my breath.
Footnote: It’s difficult to believe that in this tough political climate, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott once flirted so outrageously with each other on television. Prepare to be nauseated.