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Issue #1556      18 July 2012

Finding the way to avoid asylum seeker deaths

Several years ago approximately 300 people died when the vessel known as the SIEVX sank, while the Howard government was enforcing its harsh “Pacific solution” and detaining asylum seekers on Nauru. Last year 50 asylum seekers drowned after their boat was smashed to pieces on Christmas Island’s rocky coastline, as helpless residents watched in horror. More than 200 died last year and about 100 died last week. In all, a thousand asylum seekers are thought to have died at sea since the late 1970s, many in vessels never detected by rescue crews.

However, last week federal parliament broke for its six-week winter recess, without having reached an agreement on the best way to avoid the tragedy of asylum seekers dying en route to Australia.

The government, the opposition, the Greens and the independents were united in expressing concern over the deaths, and some were visibly distressed during discussion on the issue. Nevertheless, the way forward could not be found, because the government and opposition parties are rigidly committed to the off-shore processing policy and their incompatible versions of it.

The government has adopted an amended policy under which asylum seekers who have entered Australian waters or territory would be sent to either Nauru or Malaysia. However, the opposition coalition rejects Malaysia as a destination, or any other country that has not signed the UN Refugee Convention.

Legislative amendments proposed by independent MPs Rob Oakeshott and Andrew Wilkie also involved offshore processing but differed from the policy variations of the government and opposition, so they were rejected. The Greens have consistently opposed off-shore processing but are outnumbered.

The government has now placed the issue before an investigative committee, which will have to report back to parliament after the recess. Its members include retired defence chief Angus Houston as chairman, refugee expert Paris Aristotle and diplomat Michael L’Estrange. Significantly, the committee does not include a representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, whose office has been a critic of the offshore processing and mandatory detention policies.

Failed policies locked in

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has pointed out that the present policies are bound to fail as a deterrent to asylum seeker boat voyages, because they would have to involve punitive measures worse than the terrifying treatment the asylum seekers have already experienced in their countries of origin.

“No punitive measure, no nastiness by any Australian government, can match the terror from which a genuine refugee is fleeing”, he observed.

In the late 1970s the Fraser government dealt with the cases of 70,000 Southeast Asian asylum seekers by processing applications for asylum in Indonesia, and by increasing Australia’s annual quota of refugees.

Liberal leader Tony Abbott has offered to raise the present quota from 13,750 to 20,000 per year, but only as part of a deal that would involve reopening the former Howard government’s infamous Nauru detention centre, and only over a three year period.

The coalition wants to tow asylum seeker boats back to their point of departure. Indonesia has strongly objected to that suggestion, and last week it called for Australia to live up to its obligations under the UN Refugee Convention, rather than blaming the Indonesian government for letting the boats depart.

The coalition also wants to reintroduce the notorious temporary protection visas, which often led to the enforced separation of members of asylum seeker families. As a concession the government has offered to reconsider its opposition to temporary visas.

The government has offered to accept an extra 4,000 refugees from Malaysia, but only as part of their policy of forcibly sending new asylum seeker arrivals to that country for indefinite detention.

The way forward

The emerging solution to the asylum seeker death crisis is twofold. Firstly, we need to increase Australia’s annual intake of refugees. In contrast to the government and the coalition, the Greens want an increase of several thousand in the yearly quota, and their policy is unconditional.

Greens leader Christine Milne has commented that if the increase was made “... there would immediately be far less pressure to get on boats and risk their lives.”

Secondly, we have to stop threatening asylum seekers with exile in Malaysia or Nauru or somewhere else if they get on a boat, and instead offer them a better deal.

Echoing Fraser’s policy, human rights barrister Julian Burnside has proposed that “...The obvious solution ... to stop people getting on boats ... is for Australia to set up a fair dinkum, fair processing system in Indonesia with the cooperation of the Indonesian government.”

Under Burnside’s proposal the government would also warn applicants not to board the boats, and would provide them with a written guarantee that if their application was successful they would receive a ticket to Australia, and would eventually be safely resettled.

Other measures could be taken. For example, the Australian government could enter into an agreement with governments in Indonesia and other countries of departure to run a street advertising campaign, which would inform asylum seekers about the risks of boarding the boats, and offer them a preferable alternative along the lines of Burnside’s recommendation.

That recommendation is likely to meet with the approval of the Greens. In contrast, the opposition coalition has indicated it will reject any recommendation that doesn’t comply with its current position, and the government has pre-empted the committee’s decision by declaring it is certain to favour the Malaysia option. Neither the government nor the opposition is thinking outside the square.

If Houston’s committee consults “experts” other than those who recently advised the government that the Malaysian proposal is the best option, there is a small chance that in six week’s time it will recommend Burnside’s proposal, or a variation of it, If so, there is an equally small chance that the Gillard government will accept it.

Overall, the chance of that happening is very, very slight. But the fate of thousands of the world’s most desperate people rests upon it.  

Next article – Syrian conflict exposes America’s “Axis of Evil”

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