The publication of an edited version of my Troppo post about abolition of mandatory universal detention of asylum seekers at the ABC Unleashed site has certainly been an interesting experience. Fairly predictably it attracted the sort of polarised “howling into the darkness” comment thread that used to characterise Troppo years ago before we decided that smaller, more civil conversations were more congenial and useful.
About the only advantage of that sort of forum is that it at least provides a chance to respond to the standard knee-jerk canards of the Great Unwashed in the hope that more thoughtful and open-minded readers, who might otherwise be swayed by ignorant “pub” wisdom, will be provoked into thinking a little more deeply about the subject.
I was instantly labelled a “bleeding heart” “ivory tower” “leftie” academic whose thoughts should on that account be just as instantly dismissed.11. KP: OTO Saint Julian Burnside praised it as a “great article”, which may or may not be a compensating factor depending on one’s viewpoint [↩] As frequent Troppo readers will be aware, those labels just don’t fit. In fact I was even a cautious supporter of Howard’s “Pacific Solution” some years ago, until it became apparent that it simply didn’t work and achieved little except to inflict additional and pointless suffering on asylum seekers who in the majority of cases were genuine refugees fleeing persecution.
Of course, rejecting mandatory universal detention and offshore processing because they don’t actually work does not make one a “bleeding heart”. It does however impose some sort of intellectual obligation to propose alternative policies if you expect to be taken seriously.
For a start, abolishing universal mandatory detention, especially the offshore processing variant, will save large amounts of money which will then be available for spending on programs for dealing with asylum seekers in an effective and humane way. A conservative estimate is that it costs around $150 per day to keep an asylum seeker in detention but only around $50 per day for community-based accommodation during processing, review and appeals (derived from conversion of US figures from a Human Rights Watch publication no longer online).
At present, asylum seekers enlist with people smugglers because it is the rational decision on entirely pragmatic grounds. If they get close enough to Australia to be intercepted by the Australian Navy and can satisfy the requirements for refugee status 22. KP: A refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…” [↩] then they will receive a protection visa and residence rights in Australia. They may have to endure 2-3 years in detention but the result is certain. By contrast, if they stay in a refugee camp in Pakistan, India or wherever, they are likely to be waiting 5-10 years even if they are in a position to apply under Australia’s offshore humanitarian program, and even then they may or may not be selected. In those circumstances, paying $10-15,000 to a people smuggler is an excellent deal for those who can raise the money from their extended families, and the prospect of 2-3 years even in quite uncomfortable migration detention in Australia, Nauru or East Timor is unlikely to prove a deterrent.
The policy challenge for any Australian government is to find workable ways to make enlisting with the people smugglers less attractive and waiting in an overseas refugee camp more attractive, while not adopting deterrent tactics that subject refugees to inhumane treatment. Fortunately, abolishing mandatory detention will make available substantial funds to implement such policies Here are my proposals:
- Employ more primary assessment and merits review officers in Australia to ensure that all asylum seekers have their primary and review applications processed and finalised within 3 months of arrival (subject to any unresolved national security concerns);
- Streamline judicial review by legislating for appeal direct by special leave to the High Court from a single judge of the Federal Court, with the Federal Court matter conducted under its “Fast Track” system. The aim would be to ensure that unsuccessful applicants are processed and deported in less than one year;
- Fit unsuccessful applicants awaiting outcomes of appeal or judicial review with irremovable tracking bracelets similar to those issued to offenders in home detention, and implement a regime of regular reporting and random inspections to minimise the incidence of absconding by unsuccessful applicants (that is the ostensible principal rationale for mandatory detention);
- Grant protection visas to successful “boat people” applicants which are permanent but which contain no right or possibility whatever of applying for extended family members to come to Australia under the Family Reunion program. That should stem the current flow of unaccompanied and very mature-looking “minors” without passports or other ID;
- Employ many more investigative personnel in the main source countries for “boat people”, currently Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq. Their job would be to investigate on the ground any dubious stories to check their veracity, although security issues in some parts of Afghanistan may inhibit investigations. One would be naive to imagine that there aren’t at least some asylum seekers, perhaps even a substantial number, who deliberately craft bogus but difficult-to-disprove stories to fit themselves within the Convention definition of refugee but who are really “economic refugees”;
- Further boost Australia’s efforts and funding to disrupt people smuggler activities in Malaysia and Indonesia with a view to stopping the boats before they depart. We’re already doing this more intensively than previously, but more funding and resources will help. Moreover, we should be prepared to use all available leverage including foreign aid funding to encourage Malaysia and Indonesia to criminalise people smuggling and actually begin treating it as a serious crime;
- Offer substantial rewards to local ordinary citizens in Indonesia or Malaysia for information about people smugglers that leads to interception or prevention of a voyage and arrest of the smugglers;
- On the “carrot” side of the ledger, alter the weighting of Australia’s offshore humanitarian program so that instead of taking substantial numbers from Africa and elsewhere we are taking all or almost all of the humanitarian intake from the countries which are the main source of “boat people” arrivals (i.e. currently Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq).
- increase Australia’s overall annual humanitarian/refugee target from 13,000 to 16,000 (still not a huge number in the context of a total migration program of around 180,000 per year);
- Greatly increase the number of Australian officers receiving and processing humanitarian visa applications in the refugee camps from which “boat people” predominantly come.
The overarching objective of policies 1-6 inclusive would be to decrease the attraction of enlisting with the people smugglers, while policies 7-10 are aimed at encouraging asylum seekers to wait in primary refugee camps in South Asia and the Middle East and apply from there as the better pragmatic choice.
Update – There are some common elements between the above and proposals outlined today by the Coalition spokesperson Scott Morrison in an address to the Lowy Institute. However, Darryl Kerrigan would have a succinct answer to Morrison’s idea for “establishment of refugee processing centres in the countries of “first asylum” like Pakistan and Iran” instead of East Timor or Nauru: Tell him he’s dreaming! Why would poor countries like that accept return from a wealthy country like Australia of asylum seekers who aren’t nationals of either Pakistan or Iran?