Last night’s riot and torching of the Villawood Detention Centre inevitably brings the asylum seeker issue back into the political spotlight, especially on top of the similar incident at Christmas Island a few weeks ago.
Some “johnny-come-lately” Troppo readers might have gained the impression that I had a “bleeding heart” attitude to asylum seeker policy from my article late last year canvassing the possibility of abolishing universal mandatory detention of “boat people” and their release into the community while being processed (after health and criminal record clearance). Longer term readers would have a different view.
It’s certainly true that I object to policies that impose surplus repression on already traumatised people merely in order to act as a deterrent to others thinking of embarking with the people smugglers. Moreover, any decent person would oppose sending genuine refugees back to their homeland where by definition they face serious persecution and even death. But I also recognise that asylum seekers are an incredibly difficult problem in political management terms, and that we can’t just have an open door policy given the number of displaced people seeking a congenial new country in which to live. Those numbers fluctuate between 20 million and 60 million from time to time, and only a fraction of them actually qualify as “refugees” on the Refugee Convention definition. Australia clearly cannot accommodate more than a tiny fraction of those numbers.
However it’s clear that the existing asylum seeker policy just isn’t working, either in policy or public perception/political management terms. Nor is a reversion to John Howard’s “Pacific Solution” likely to help in anything other than a very short term sense. As I’ve argued previously, Howard’s policy was always just “smoke and mirrors”, providing only a temporary illusion of toughness. Accommodating boat people on Nauru did not change the fact that Australia basically had no effective choice but eventually to grant residency to boat people found to be genuine refugees, and once prospective customers realised that (as was starting to occur when Howard lost government in 2007) the flow of hopeful visaless arrivals was always going to resume and increase.
It was in that context that I suggested the Gillard government should consider abandoning the universal mandatory detention policy. However, the torching of Christmas Island and Villawood makes that option politically impossible for any government with ambitions of electoral survival. Moreover, given Gillard’s current stoushes over mining and carbon taxes and poker machine pre-commitment legislation, there’s no way in the world they would consider opening up a new battle-front.
Accordingly, what is to be done? Maybe it’s time to consider a radical option certain to alienate left-leaning readers:
- Australia should withdraw from the Refugee Convention;
- Any boat people arriving from now on should be immediately deported wherever possible back to the country of “first asylum” from whence they came, without assessing them for refugee status;
- Those who can’t be deported back to a country of first asylum (e.g. because that country refuses to take unwilling deportees) should be accommodated on Christmas Island without processing until they agree to return;
- We should simultaneously double our offshore humanitarian migrant intake (most of whom are refugees);
- We should double our foreign aid payments to the countries of “first asylum” from which Australia’s current “boat people” mostly depart e.g. India, Pakistan and various Middle Eastern countries;
- We should make even more generous financial arrangements with first asylum countries which agree to take unwilling returnees.
It may well be that something like this is the only viable long-term solution unless releasing asylum seekers into the general community during processing becomes a viable political option, which seems highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. No regime of detention and surplus repression can overcome the attraction of knowing that you will eventually win permanent residency in one of the world’s most peaceful, prosperous nations if you can only get close to the Australian coast and then convince assessors that you’re a real refugee.
The central moral commitment of the Refugee Convention is the prohibition on returning refugees to their homeland to face persecution and death. That isn’t breached by my proposal. I don’t accept that Australia has any general moral obligation to offer permanent residency to any of the world’s hungry masses yearning to be free. They can yearn somewhere else.