Here is quite a good article seeking to “reframe” the asylum seeker debate. It takes a reasonably moderate, non-hysterical approach.
I haven’t written on the subject recently myself, because I have been feeling a little conflicted. On the one hand, long-time Troppo readers will be aware I have always been of the view that reasonably firm border protection and asylum seeker processing policies are justified in Australia in order to maintain public confidence in our very successful migration program and avoid or minimise social tensions and divisions that would inevitably emerge if the pace of arrivals was greater than the nation could comfortably absorb (assimilate is a forbidden expression). From this perspective the Abbott government has been very successful: it really has stopped the boats (at least for the present).
On the other hand, any policy prescriptions for asylum seekers must meet at least two basic human rights requirements:
- Whether in immigration detention or not, asylum seekers must be housed in safe, clean and reasonably comfortable accommodation, with ready access to appropriate health, education and basic community facilities;
- Asylum seekers in Australian care/custody must never be returned to the country from which they fled allegedly fearing Convention-based persecution (“refouled”) without a rigorous assessment of the genuineness of their claims to refugee status. Nor must they be “turned back” to a third country from which there is a real risk they will be refouled. To do otherwise is to risk replicating the appalling saga of the St Louis during World War II.
These are the basic and most central aspects of the Refugee Convention to which Australia is a signatory. Except for a short period in the wake of the Tampa affair, when the Howard government flirted with “turning back the boats”, all previous governments have honoured these basic Convention obligations.
However, the Abbott government is flouting both principles, seemingly with the tacit approval or at least complete disinterest of the Australian community and much of the media.
Just about all reports of conditions in the Manus Island detention centre suggest that they are truly appalling. Perhaps things may improve with the replacement of centre manager G4S with Transfield Services, but there is room for skepticism.
As for basic principle 2, Abbott and Morrison’s policy of “turning back the boats” with little or no prior assessment of asylum seekers’ claims is a clear and fundamental breach of Australia’s non-refoulement obligations under the Refugee Convention. The policy is particularly repugnant where asylum seekers are returned by Australian authorities to the very country from which they fled fearing persecution, as was the case when our navy recently returned a boatload of Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka under a cloak of “on water operations” secrecy. Morrison and former Labor Foreign Minister Bob Carr may airily dismiss them as mere “economic refugees”, but reputable bodies including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have a very different assessment of the ongoing risks faced by Tamils in Sri Lanka. Whenever Tamils have been able to access credible assessment processes, at least 50-60% of them have been classified as genuine refugees (having a genuine and well-founded fear of persecution for a Convention reason).
Even worse, the “turnback” policy is now being bolstered by legislative amendements, backed through the Senate by PUP, which expressly permit the Minister to turn boats back to wherever he chooses without considering the risk of refoulement:
The bill amends the Maritime Powers Act to expand already broad powers to intercept vessels and detain people at sea. It seeks to exclude challenge to government actions that are in breach of international law, taking aim at pending High Court action on behalf of the 157 asylum seekers detained recently on board the Ocean Protector. …
The power to remove non-citizens would be expanded by a provision that states: “It is irrelevant whether Australia has non-refoulement obligations” in respect of a person; and removal can occur “irrespective of whether there has been an assessment, according to law” of whether protection obligations are engaged.
However, I suspect that the biggest problem with the Abbott government’s current asylum seeker processing regime is a purely practical one: it may not be sustainable because no other country in our region or elsewhere will accept for resettlement any significant number of refugees who sought asylum in Australia (one of the world’s wealthiest nations). For precisely that reason, the Howard government’s Pacific Solution would inevitably have failed anyway had Kevin Rudd not pre-emptively abolished it in 2008 and made himself the scapegoat for the subsequent resumption of large-scale boat arrivals. No-one would take the refugees “warehoused” by the Howard government on Nauru and (for a time) Manus Island, and Howard was forced quietly to grant a lot of them protection visas and allow them into Australia. News of this would certainly in due course have reached the people smugglers and their desperate customers, and the boat traffic would have resumed even in the absence of Rudd’s (retrospectively) unwise actions.
Something similar may already be in its early stages for the Abbott government. Despite reported payments by Australia in the vicinity of $400 million to a notoriously corrupt PNG government (most of it probably in Swiss bank accounts and Gold Coast apartments by now), the O’Neill government has still taken no visible steps to implement a refugee resettlement regime. Not a single refugee has been resettled in PNG and only one family in Nauru. There are more than 2500 asylum seekers currently in offshore detention in Manus Island and Nauru, of whom it is fair to estimate that more than half will be assessed (or have already been) as refugees. There are also almost 30,000 asylum seekers awaiting refugee determinations onshore in Australia, most still in immigration detention. Will many of them end up being successfully resettled in Cambodia, a country if anything even poorer and more corrupt than Papua New Guinea? Somehow I doubt it. More likely a few will be cajoled into consenting to resettlement but will have dreadful experiences in Cambodia that will result in no-one else consenting to resettlement. It is very likely that Abbott and Morrison will eventually be forced to emulate John Howard and quietly give them protection visas, although probably not until the 2016 election is conveniently out of the way.
The problem with that scenario is that the people smugglers’ “business model” would immediately resume, with thousands flooding across from Indonesia to Christmas Island and more than a few of them being drowned along the way.
A charter city?
Is there a viable and humane alternative? I must say I’m quite attracted by the idea of establishing a refugee “charter city” (cf Hong Kong) somewhere on Australia’s northern coastline. It was an idea first canvassed by economist Paul Romer as a way for poor third world countries to “fast-track” their way to first world wealth. As such it has attracted quote a lot of probably justified criticism. However, maybe the idea has rather more merit as a way that a wealthy country like Australia might manage its seemingly insoluble border protection problems by providing real opportunities and “durable asylum” for refugees while avoiding creation of community tensions and divisions or undermining public confidence in the migration system. Young Australian economist Robert Wiblin suggested in 2009, shortly after the emergence of the explosion in boat arrivals following Rudd’s abandonment of the Pacific Solution, that Romer’s ideas might be adapted to Australia’s asylum seeker situation:
The main insight here is that some of what makes high income countries so rich can be franchised. Rich countries are rich largely because they have large quantities of natural, physical and human capital, access to technology and the expertise to use it, as well as governmental, legal and cultural institutions which facilitate wealth production. Refugees moving to Australia from dysfunctional states would suddenly have access to far more of all of these things, but Australians presumably fear they might also reduce the natural, cultural and physical capital available for those, including themselves, who are already here. If Australians aren’t so enthusiastic about sharing their good luck with refugees, a Charter City administered by Australia could at least allow them access to the governmental and legal institutions which have served Australia so well. By credibly providing those rules in this new city Australia would make it a desirable place for investment, thereby also increasing the residents’ access to physical capital and technological expertise. While migrants to the charter city wouldn’t have access to the cultural and human capital that a new resident of Sydney would have, the close proximity to Australian culture and citizens would be sure to provide at some benefits in these areas as well. Romer is even confident that these cities would be able to pay for themselves and eventually turn a profit for the host country through tax revenue, which would essentially be selling their legal institutions to willing buyers.
The primary difficulty of building a city of refugees from scratch would be putting together the social capital and norms necessary for disparate social groups to obey the law and work together effectively and by so doing attract the investment necessary to build such a city. As Arnold Kling has pointed out:
Paul Romer, in presenting his idea for charter cities, makes it sound as though we can take rules “manufactured” in, say, Canada, and export them anywhere in the world. Leoni would say that instead most law is embedded in social customs In fact, my daughter who just spent the summer in Tanzania, says that the custom of seeing law as something that ought to be obeyed is not nearly as natural there as it is here.
Would refugees from a variety of different cultures be able to produce and follow a common set of laws and norms which would allow them to work and life well together? Would refugees, with little hope of returning home, jump at such an opportunity to start a new life in such an experimental city? If the answers are yes, it is possible Australians could help many more refugees than they would be willing to accept as immigrants to their country.
My own idea for a charter city is that it should be established on Melville Island off the coast north of Darwin. I’m sure the entrepreneurially-minded Tiwi people would be willing to do a commercial deal for a 99 year lease on a Hong Kong-sized piece of unused land. The advantage of establishing a charter city in the Northern Territory is that the Commonwealth could readily implement a favourable low tax regime without the constitutional constraints that would apply if it were done in a State. The sort of charter terms that might be considered include:
- Much lower and flatter personal and company tax regime;
- Very basic but livable social security, housing, education and primary health care facilities, with people being able to access more complex acute care facilities in Darwin when needed;
- Only refugees (and NT government employed teachers, nurses, police etc) could live there, and only refugees would be permitted to start businesses there;
- Refugees would initially be granted one of Clive Palmer’s temporary Safe Haven Enterprise Visas, but might eventually be permitted to apply for permanent business or skilled migration visas if they established a successful long-term business;
- Businesses would be required to pay the Australian minimum wage under the Fair Work Act but would not otherwise be bound to offer award wages or conditions;
- Recognition of foreign professional and trade qualifications would be fast-tracked.
I think there is a genuine prospect that such a charter city, if established and fostered appropriately, really COULD develop into a thriving Hong Kong-style entrepreneurial city on Australia’s north coast. Moreover, with its distinct neoliberal overtones, it might even be the sort of scheme that Abbott, Morrison et al would see as an attractive option. I wonder whether any Coalition movers and shakers read Troppo? Mark Textor, where are you when I need you?