Withdraw from the Refugee Convention?

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:

  1. Australia should withdraw from the Refugee Convention;
  2. 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;
  3. 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;
  4. We should simultaneously double our offshore humanitarian migrant intake (most of whom are refugees);
  5. 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;
  6. 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.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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42 Responses to Withdraw from the Refugee Convention?

  1. BFA says:

    Interesting proposal, I always though that conservatives especially should be more forthright about withdrawing from the Refugee Convention.

    Can I just clarify though, are you suggesting returning asylum seekers to places that they are fleeing from or only to countries that they have “passed through” on the way to Australia?

    Also, wouldn’t Australia also be under obligation to assess the likelihood of torture taking place upon return (at least for some asylum seekers) under the Convention Against Torture?

  2. Craig Lawton says:

    This all assumes we have some real sort of problem in regards to non-preferred arrival… a few thousand a year… Surprised anyone really cares… Mostly found to legitimate refugees…

    Your point 2. targets boat arrivals so perpetuates the myth around boats, when most asylum seekers come by plane.

    Put innocent people in privately run, and very expensive jails then you will get riots. No surprises there…

    This problem is purely political and has nothing to do with a real refugee problem and more to to do with lack of any moral authority, conviction and vision of both major parties.

  3. Ken Parish says:


    I agree with everything you say (and have made the same observations myself in previous posts). But it doesn’t change the political reality, and I can’t see that reality changing in the foreseeable future. Asylum seekers haven’t done themselves any favours by torching detention centres. Public anger will prevent any government from taking a “soft” approach for a very long time. Thus it’s going to be a choice between a continued detention regime with all that goes with it, or finding another solution that actually does stop the boats. A policy which unequivocally sends a message that arriving by boat isn’t going to achieve any advantage at all will certainly have that effect.

    Moreover if a clear line is drawn so that those who have already arrived are processed and approved where they are found to be refugees, and are released into the community pending processing as soon as they get health and security clearance (apart from the ringleades of the rioting, who should be prosecuted and deported), we would also be achieving a humane outcome.

  4. Kien says:

    What about Paul Romer’s idea of creating a charter city? Perhaps the UNHCR could take a 400 year lease of an island from Indonesia (or even a spot at North Western Australia), and convert it into a charter city to be populated by refugees. All countries could grant zero tariffs on exports from the UNHCR charter city. Who knows, at the end of the lease, Indonesia (or Australia) could have a Hong Kong at its doorstep.

  5. Ken Parish says:

    “are you suggesting returning asylum seekers to places that they are fleeing from or only to countries that they have “passed through” on the way to Australia?”

    Only to “first asylum” countries i.e. the one to which they fled initially. Very few asylum seekers get here after a continuous journey from their homeland. They typically spend significant amounts of time in a UNHCR refugee camp in a country adjacent to their homeland, before choosing a first world target for an attempt at permanent migration. It’s almost always a calculated choice, and therefore can be influenced by changed prospects in a particular target country. One of the reasons why Australia is currently experiencing an upsurge in arrivals is toughened regimes in some European countries.

  6. Ken Parish says:


    I hadn’t read about that idea. It sounds interesting and innovative. Do you have a link to the article by Romer?

  7. Craig Lawton says:

    By public anger I guess you mean the harping of bogans and shock jocks.

    You can be strong and humane without being “soft”. It’s risky politically and the current crop of politicians are backed into a corner by their own histories

  8. Kien says:

    Hi, Ken. See: http://www.chartercities.org.

    When I first came across the Charter City idea, I contacted someone at Charter Cities to suggest they talk to the Australian government about converting Christmas Island to a charter city. They told me that Christmas Island is too small. Water supply may be a constraint.

  9. Paul Frijters says:

    can we sell Tasmania to the UN as a charter city?

    Seriously though, charter cities sound fine but the reality is that every country close to a charter city is going to be afraid of the fall-out of such a thing (Somalia can be seen as a charter city: no functional government there to stop anyone from coming in) so the only way it will work is if some country or international organisation takes responsibility for it and simply sets up a new country.

  10. Kien says:

    I understand Torres Strait Islands have charter-city-like origins, at least according to a Rear Vision podcast in March.

  11. Kien says:

    Apparently the Australian government originally wanted to hand the Torres Strait Islands to PNG. But Queensland objected.

  12. Ken Parish says:

    “By public anger I guess you mean the harping of bogans and shock jocks. ”

    Check out this page summarising opinion poll research on (inter alia) asylum seeker issues (scroll down to “Asylum/ Refugee Issues”). Unless you are happy to accept that somewhere between 60 and 70% of the Australian population are “bogans and shock jocks”, you can’t simply dismiss the electoral dimensions of this issue quite so glibly. If you imagine that any political party aspiring to government is going to embrace a position that flies in the face of the opinions of that proportion of the Australian population on a “hot button” issue, then as Darryl Kerrigan puts it: “You’re dreamin’ “.

  13. I’m a bit puzzled by your assertion that ” Very few asylum seekers get here after a continuous journey from their homeland. They typically spend significant amounts of time in a UNHCR refugee camp in a country adjacent to their homeland, before choosing a first world target for an attempt at permanent migration.”

    As an ESL teacher and community volunteer, I’ve dealt with a very large number of refugees in the past few decades, and although your first statement is correct (their journey is intermittent, also extremely dangerous and many don’t make it), the second is not. Most did not have access to a UNHCR refugee camp. Where are you assuming they can go?

    Unless you can reach a UNHCR refugee camp or a country which supports the Refugee Convention, you are legally a non-person. Any other government will completely ignore your situation, and the population will starve, torture, rape, enslave and kill you with complete impunity. You have no protection, no status.

    The “conscious decision” is one to try and stay alive, and to find the safest place for your family. It’s not like deciding which topping you want on your pizza.

  14. Ken Parish says:


    I was using UNHCR as a shorthand synonym to include camps run by Red Cross and other NGOs and for that matter various governments of first asylum countries. It’s certainly true that the security situation varies greatly between camps, and that at many of them facilities to apply for a refugee visa in Australia or elsewhere are not readily available. It’s inherent in my proposal (and discussed in previous posts) that doubling Australia’s offshore humanitarian intake will require a substantial boost to our offshore processing capability to make it much easier for people to apply without risking the perilous sea crossing with people smugglers.

    When you consider my proposal in its full context, it’s rather surprising, at least on grounds of pure logic, that people like you and Craig Lawton will not give it more serious consideration. You will not consider a proposal that would give permanent visas to twice as many refugees as at present, assessed on the basis of need, and instead implicitly favour the current policy which:

    (1) helps only half as many and favours those who help themselves over those in greatest need;

    (2) encourages asylum seekers to enlist with criminal people smuggler gangs;

    (3) encourages them to take a dangerous sea journey on which many die.

    All these negative features would exist to at least as great an extent if Australia abolished universal mandatory detention. However, as I’ve observed, although abolition of universal mandatory detention may well be the preferred policy in a utopian world, there is no way that any government wanting to survive can afford to do any such thing in the foreseeable future given current developments. Hence the fourth negative feature which you implicitly support is a system which subjects onshore visaless arrivals to prolonged incarceration and all the traumatising features that accompany it.

  15. Ken, I don’t disagree with your proposal to double the humanitarian intake, increase aid or make it safe and reasonable for people to return home or go to other countries.

    I was specifically objecting to one statement you made. If I had intended to analyze your entire post, I would have done so. ;)

    People won’t stop taking huge risks to survive, as long as those huge risks are necessary. The journey to the closest “refugee camp” is usually just as dangerous (if not more so) than a boat trip to Australia. So many don’t survive.

    I certainly don’t accept resigning from the U.N. refugee convention. While millions of people may be displaced in this world, only a tiny proportion ever reach Australia. We can accommodate them, and much more easily if we don’t stick them in very expensive prisons.

    I also don’t agree that abolishing mandatory detention is in any way “utopian”. We managed successfully without it for decades. If our pollies are really so cowardly that they won’t stop an inhumane and illegal system of imprisonment which wastes huge amounts of our taxes, do we just stand aside and say, “Yeah, you don’t care about these people and that’s just fine with me”? It’s not fine with me.

  16. Ricky says:

    I have to say this is potentially a very interesting proposal.

    If we designed a system where people paid a random fee of say $20,000 for a 90% chance of settlement, but randomly shot 1 in 50 – would this be described as a compassionate system? But this is effectively how the boat system works. Remember hundreds of people have died in the boats. I’m all for taking more refugees but we should do everything possible to discourage people from taking to the seas. It is possible to be against boats and not be racist you know.

    Also, arguments based on there being small numbers are illogical. It implies that there is some number of arrivals at which it is a problem.

    If you think that anyone who makes it to Australia should be accepted then logically you should be fine if 200,000 people turn up on our doorstep.

  17. Sinclair Davidson says:

    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.

    Punish refugees because the government would rather collect more revenue and wage war against pokie machines?

  18. Hillbilly Skeleton says:

    1. Australia should withdraw from the Refugee Convention;

    Nice little isolationist ideal, crap in practice. The rest of the world who are signatories to the Refugee Convention would not be amused and, those such as the European Union and the USA, who have to deal with far more Asylum Seekers than we ever will, may just take punitive action like sanctions against Australia for doing so. In a globalised economy that Australia relies upon, that would hurt.
    Also it would be seen as extremely selfish of us when you do the math comparing how many refugees get here per year to what happens to their countries.
    Anyway, not being a signatory to the Refugee Convention anymore would just see us in the same situation as those countries which already are not, like Indonesia, where refugees still come to their shores but are either put in jail, or jail-like Detention Centres, or get to roam freely in the community as non-citizens ignored by government.


    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;

    Abbott’s silly ‘Stop the Boats!’ with added context.
    It won’t work because, as you seem to have forgotten the incident with the Asylum Seeker boat explosion, wherein if Asylum Seekers get wind of the idea that they are going to be turned around and towed back out to sea by the Navy, they will just disable or blow their boat up.
    Also, as we are an island nation, could you ‘Please Explain’ how we can keep our maritime borders bristling with interdiction hardware so as to prevent any Asylum Seeker boat getting within our 200 Nautical Mile limit, whereupon they disable their boat, as mentioned above, and we are duty bound to come to their aid? What do you do with them then? Put them in a Deportation Camp, and send them back to where? Malaysia or another ‘first asylum’ country, where they will be persecuted all over again as our refugee refuse is made some other, 2nd or 3rd world, country’s problem again? Because people in this 1st world country are having one of their periodic problems with the ‘Reffos’?
    Not that I am advocating opening the floodgates, but I think the situation can be managed better than what you have suggested.
    For a start, I’d be redefining the description around ‘persecuted’. For example, nice people though they are, the Hazaras aren’t exactly being taken out into the streets of Afghanistan by the Pashtuns and being stoned to death daily. So maybe a higher standard of ‘Persecution’ needs to be enacted, and then we would only end up taking those who can prove real and active recent persecution. Another example being those ‘refugees’ I have read about who have been in ‘first asylum’ countries for 20 years or more. Hardly the subjects of recent persecution. So maybe a first option of acceptance to Asylum Seekers who make it here from current conflicts, like, say, from Libya at the moment? Which ends when the conflict there ends. And then we move on to the next conflict because there always seems to be a new one these days.

  19. Don Arthur says:

    Ken – I’m not sure how this would work. I can’t imagine that other countries would allow Australia to dump asylum seekers on their soil. So, under your plan, Christmas Island would fill to bursting point. Then what?

  20. wizofaus says:

    Can somebody explain why the main problem couldn’t significantly ameliorated resolved by speeding up the approval process? What is the reason approvals are taking so long anyway?

  21. Kien says:

    Richard – thank you for telling me about the Thatcher proposal. Interesting that Lee Kuan Yew thought the “charter city” would be a threat to Singapore; he must have thought it was a viable idea.

    Here’s a nicely written article on Romer’s idea

    From the article:

    Halfway through the 12th century, and a long time before economists began pondering how to turn poor places into rich ones, the Germanic prince Henry the Lion set out to create a merchant’s mecca on the lawless Baltic coast. It was an ambitious project, a bit like trying to build a new Chicago in modern Congo or Iraq. Northern Germany was plagued by what today’s development gurus might delicately call a “bad-governance equilibrium,” its townships frequently sacked by Slavic marauders such as the formidable pirate Niclot the Obotrite. But Henry was not a mouse. He seized control of a fledgling town called Lübeck, had Niclot beheaded on the battlefield, and arranged for Lübeck to become the seat of a diocese. A grand rectangular market was laid out at the center of the town; all that was missing was the merchants.

    To attract that missing ingredient to his city, Henry hit on an idea that has enjoyed a sort of comeback lately. He devised a charter for Lübeck, a set of “most honorable civic rights,” calculating that a city with light regulation and fair laws would attract investment easily. The stultifying feudal hierarchy was cast aside; an autonomous council of local burgesses would govern Lübeck. Onerous taxes and trade restrictions were ruled out; merchants who settled in Lübeck would be exempt from duties and customs throughout Henry the Lion’s lands, which stretched south as far as Bavaria. The residents of Lübeck were promised fair treatment before the law and an independent mint that would shelter them from confiscatory inflation. With this bill of rights in place, Henry dispatched messengers to Russia, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Merchants who liked the sound of his charter were invited to migrate to Lübeck.

    The plan worked. Immigrants soon began arriving in force, and Lübeck became the leading entrepôt for the budding Baltic Sea trade route, which eventually extended as far west as London and Bruges and as far east as Novgorod, in Russia. Hundreds of oaken cogs—ships powered by a single square sail—entered Lübeck’s harbor every year, their hulls bursting with Flemish cloth, Russian fur, and German salt. In less than a century, Lübeck went from a backwater to the most populous and prosperous town in northern Europe. “In medieval urban history there is hardly another example of a success so sudden and so brilliant,” writes the historian Philippe Dollinger.

    Perhaps the only thing more remarkable than Lübeck’s wealth was the influence of its charter. As trade routes lengthened, new cities mushroomed all along the Baltic shore, and rather than develop a legal code from scratch, the next wave of city fathers copied Lübeck’s charter, importing its political and economic liberties. The early imitators included the nearby cities of Rostock and Danzig, but the charter was eventually adopted as far afield as Riga and Tallinn, the capitals of modern Latvia and Estonia. The medieval world had stumbled upon a formula for creating order out of chaos and prosperity amid backwardness. Lübeck ultimately became the seat of the Hanseatic League, an economic alliance of 200 cities that lasted nearly half a millennium.

  22. observa says:

    Sorry folks, you know how it is now with Woodside Army Camp(Inverbrackie)full up with the latest objects of graduazzi compassion-
    Try Tassie or some such Dreamtimers while the compassionatte, vivid from children on the rocks, pull the covers over their heads and chant wistfully- We must put a tax on carbon, we must put…

  23. observa says:

    Contrition graciously accepted Ken, but perhaps instead of futile chanting of carbon mantras, you quietly suggest to the Gillard Govt they fortuitously ban the sale of baseball bats before the next election, if Rann hasn’t gone there already.

  24. Richard Tsukamasa Green says:

    Kien – Here’s a more sobre account of the Thatcher proposal.

    The whole idea of a refugee settlement colony is a very interesting idea, if only as a thought experiment. Interestingly the historical parallel is probably far less Hong Kong than another successful example of a society created to place people that were undesired anywhere else – New South Wales.

    Whilst it’d be hard to sell politically and the issues of getting the thing up and running would probably scare off any policy maker from even thinking about it, I think the killer would probably just finding a suitable bit of land with enough water. Xmas Island seems not to have it, and I doubt East Timor or Indonesia would find it politically possible domestically to sell one, even if they were willing to do so (and possibly drive of whatever people are already there). I note that Baltic cities needed feudal conquest, Hong Kong required the opium wars and NSW was aided by smallpox, none of which we would embrace again.

    Still, if there was ever a plausible opportunity for a charter city, I think unwillingness to accept refugees probably creates it. Maybe Romer should get on the government to alter the “East Timor Solution”. We already have troops in the country and a willingness to grab as much gas as possible, as well as the idea that we know what’s best of them. If we’re already doing all the colonialist sanctimony and a bit of the bastardry, why not tie a possibly interesting experiment to it.

  25. Kien says:

    Thank you, Richard.

    At this iTunes U podcast (http://deimos3.apple.com/WebObjects/Core.woa/Browse/kauffman.org.3642162346.03642162348.4531699347?i=1285667158) which you can also access at http://www.kauffman.org/infectioustalk/blog.aspx., Paul Kedrovsky talks to Paul Romer about charter cities.

    Paul Romer thinks that, to be viable, the land must be at least 1,000 sq km, with a population of 10 million! Neither Hong Kong nor Singapore have 10 million people. I wonder why Paul Romer thinks such a high number is necessary for viability.

    When asked how people react to his idea of charter cities, Paul Romer said that the main objection people have is that they don’t think it is politically viable.

    Paul’s response to this is that we need to think like an entrepreneur. Paul Romer himself had some entrepreneurial experience with a software business. Perhaps academics and policy advisors who politicians turn to for advice should be more self-aware of their capacity to think entrepreneurially, and not be too quick to dismiss the charter cities idea as “not politically viable”.

    Another economics professor, Edward Glaeser, have been telling us about the Triumph of Cities (http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/a-conversation-with-edward-l-glaeser/)

  26. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thx for the post Ken.

    The thing about all this Ken, as no doubt you are aware, is that modern political media management proscribes the clarification of issues that are not your talking points. If you’re taking a drubbing, you just try to talk about something or someone else. Thus did the ALP lose the debate about its stimulus. It didn’t stand and fight even though the issues were clear enough. Here it’s all too difficult for itself to own up to what it’s doing and what it stands for. Even if they knew what they were doing they wouldn’t come out and fight and clarify the issues.


  27. Henry2 says:


    You are very close to what Andrew Bolt has been proposing for over a year. Simply,
    for every 100 people taken off boats and returned to the point of embarkation you take 200 from the point of embarkation. It removes all incentive to embark on the dangerous boats and the country of embarkation (Indonesia usually) gets itself rid of twice the number they would have had the boat arrivals been accepted.

    Craig, I have no problem with refugees. I have a great problem with forcing people to hand over great sums to people smugglers to embark on unsafe boats to get here. When I say we should stop the boats it isnt to stop refugees. Its to stop the unsafe passage. Of course if you think its fine for these folk to hand over money hand and fist to take on the unsafe passage, you are welcome to your view. I dont share it.

  28. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Ok – well I’ll vote for the Andrew Bolt solution.

  29. Lorenzo says:

    The problem with Romer’s Charter Cities proposal is that it is not medieval enough and so far too neo-colonial.

  30. Lorenzo says:

    As part of the long term pattern of rising global incomes and falling transport costs, use of boats for migration purposes is apparently on an upswing :)

    Is not the desperate act becoming a refugee in the first place? Taking a punt on boat arrival via purchased “black market transport” is surely more of a calculated risk. As such, it operates according to supply and demand factors, with the charming extra elements that black markets have. And the Bolt proposal does seem to be aimed at such calculations.

    Since it is clear that much of the popular antipathy is generated by a sense of blatantly having no say (boat arrivals having a salience that plane arrivals do not), the Bolt proposal needs to either give a sense of having a say or reduce the salience. I am not sure it does the former all that well, but it certainly would do the latter.

  31. Ken Parish says:

    Andrew Bolt’s proposal shares the same defect as mine. It’s the one pointed out by Don Arthur at #20 :

    I can’t imagine that other countries would allow Australia to dump asylum seekers on their soil.

    I don’t think it’s quite as dire as Don suggests, because I suspect Australia would be able to do deals with some countries of first asylum to accept involuntary returnees. But it’s very unlikely we’d be able to do deals with anything like all of them. Moreover, countries like Indonesia and Malaysia are transit ports rather than countries of first asylum, so the prospects of relatively poor emerging nations like that agreeing to accept the dumping of asylum seekers merely because a much wealthier country like Australia has an internal political management headache in dealing with an issue which they would rightly see as very minor are quite low.

    Thus my suggestion isn’t anything like a complete solution, and Bolt’s is no solution at all.

    Kien’s “charter city” suggestion, however, gives me an idea. The Commonwealth could do a deal with the Tiwi people to take a long-term lease on a substantial chunk of Melville island. It is more that 6000 square kilometres and is fertile with no water shortage. It is remote enough to allow asylum seekers (and those found to be refugees) to be easily kept there, but close enough to Darwin to be easily serviced.

    The Commonwealth could build a community there of 1500-2000 basic public housing units, and school, health centre, community store etc. Asylum seekers could be released into that community as soon as they pass initial health checks. Those found to be refugees would be given 3 year renewable protection visas, with condition that they:

    (1) continue to reside on the island;
    (2) are not eligible to apply for any other class of visa for 5 years;
    (3) are not eligible to apply to bring extended family to Australia while on the protection visa;
    (4) receive social security benefits with Basics card restrictions, but can start a business or take a job on the island if available.

    This would technically breach Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention because it requires that refugees be treated roughly like permanent residents, and requiring them to live on Melville island clearly doesn’t satisfy that. However, Australia already arguably breaches the Convention by imposing universal detention on visaless asylum seekers. At least this solution would ensure that Australia observed our fundamental obligation not to refoule refugees. Moreover it’s conceivable that this community might develop over time into a prosperous and desirable one (i.e. a mini version of the “charter city” concept).

    More likely, this policy would largely succeed in stopping the boats. As “Lorenzo” observes, embarking with people smugglers is a calculated decision. My proposal removes just about all incentive to do so because there would be no advantage in terms of jumping the offshore asylum seeker queue and winning the right to remain in the wider Australian community. That strong message would be bolstered by greatly increasing the number of offshore humanitarian visas issued as proposed in my primary post.

    Incidentally, another advantage of this proposal is that it would be possible to release unprocessed asylum seekers into the new Melville Island community, even though they had not yet passed the character/security test. They would not pose any real security threat on Melville Island. The main problem causing processing delays at present is that many asylum seekers arrive in Australia without any identity documents. In a few cases they might have been forced to flee their homeland without them, but for most it’s because they’ve deliberately destroyed ID before embarking on the boat journey. That is so they can manufacture a story which satisfies the requirements of the Refugee Convention and which cannot easily be disproved. ASIO no doubt finds it very difficult to verify identity and background in countries with major governance problems like Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention those that are hostile to Australia like Iran. While the chances that these people are in fact terrorists (or otherwise a security risk) are no doubt quite low, the possibility can’t be eliminated unless they can be identified and background checked at least to some extent. The left-leaning commentators and asylum seeker advocates would no doubt be among the first to accuse Australian authorities of incompetence if a terrorist did manage to slip through and perpetrate an attack.

    The standard Left response to security concerns is to scoff at the idea that terrorists might try to slip into Australia with groups of visaless asylum seekers. Far more likely that they would enter under much less scrutiny on a tourist or student visa. However, I’m quite sure that applicants for tourist or student visa from any Muslim country are minutely scrutinised before approval. It’s not completely implausible to wonder whether the increasing pressure of visaless arrival, .backlogs caused by difficulties in verifying ID and background, and pressure from left-leaning refugee advocacy groups might together be creating a situation where the people smuggler route provides a better entry option for terrorists with greater potential for “cover” than the legally obtained visa option.

  32. Nicholas Gruen says:


    Perhaps I’m not understanding Bolt’s (Henry2’s?) proposal, but trying to interpret it to make as much sense as possible, it needn’t involve tearing up the convention or at least its spirit. One can simply head to Indonesia and offer to take 200 refugees for every 100 you voluntarily drop off back with them. If they don’t do the deal you don’t get to offload the refugees. If the rest of the world took exception to this, and without reading up on it I can imagine it does offend the letter of the convention, it’s hard to see why they should. It involves Australia doubling its effort and doing bilateral deals with other countries to which they voluntarily agree. Moreover if other countries did the same the refugee settlement effort would be expanded, not contracted (or at least at first blush it looks that way.) The snag I guess it that the whole point is to reduce the incentives for individuals to make the trip which means the offer to double entry of refugees is temporary and that in the long term if the incentives created are as we think and as they intended, the total Australian effort goes down not up. :(

  33. Ken Parish says:


    I doubt that the Bolt suggestion would work. For a start I doubt that Indonesia would agree, notwithstanding that it would get rid of double the number of asylum seekers on its shores each time. The precedent of agreeing to be Australia’s dumping ground is unlikely to go down well with Indonesians.

    Secondly, the last time return of boatloads was tried it ended in the Oceanic Viking stand-off where the asylum seekers refused to disembark, Australian personnel were not permitted to use physical force to get them off, and they eventually had to be offered protection visas anyway.

    Thirdly, even if those aspects could be overcome, people smuggler gangs would quickly find a way to “game” such a system. For example, they would pay groups of “asylum seekers” to repeatedly make the sea journey so double the number of real asylum seekers could then get to Australia in comfort at Australian taxpayers’ expense. There would be plenty of money available to pay the dummy asylum seekers reasonably generously to make the sea journey (given that the actual asylum seekers pay up to $20,000 each and there would be twice as many of them), and it might be a rather pleasant occupation to sail down to Ashmore Reef and back and live in Indonesia on a generous stipend.

  34. perplexed says:

    Some radical new thinking is obviously required to this problem and KP is right to remind us and hopefully the Gillard Government that recent events have clearly changed the dynamic. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen is no fool and must realise that he can’t fob the public with a ‘business as usual’ approach on mandatory detention given current events.
    A shame that the public has so little information on ‘arrivals’ to be able to assess possible changes. For example, ASIO checks are said to the major reason for lengthy detention, but the Government seems unable or powerless to tell us why despite huge increases in staff and budget. ASIO itself is unlikely, and legally not required to inform us their paymasters of anything! In the case of Iran/Iraq arrivals is ASIO trawling for more than just refugee bona fides?
    How much is family reunion edging out political asylum as a ‘claim’ under the UN Charter and what do we know of the possible ‘drivers’ for boat people emanating from within Australia. Can we make more of sponsorship as a way of putting the responsibility and cost on those domestically who seem to be abetting dangerous boat trips?
    How can visa over-stayers – plane arrivals – become asylum seekers? Or do they all claim asylum on arrival? Since no people smuggling deal appears done in these cases are their outcomes different? Which airlines are favoured, why and what pressure could be brought on those with government shareholding?
    Outside of the fringe support groups lobbing food to Villawood roof squatters, the public is not getting a balanced view. Bowen should take us into his confidence if the radical thinking evident on this blog is to get any chance.

  35. Nicholas Gruen says:


    It’s a nice emotive expression ‘Indonesia as a dumping ground’. I completely agree that it is outrageous for Australia to just want to dump its problems on the much less affluent Indonesians. And further, if the Indonesians or any other country won’t play ball – then obviously it doesn’t work.

    But I think it’s ridiculous to say Indonesia becomes a ‘dumping ground’ for our problems when we’re picking up twice the ‘problems’ in return.

    Further if I’ve explained the mechanics correctly I can’t see how your third point would work. The people smugglers (no doubt many not nice people, but nevertheless the kind of people who have helped the desperate all through history) might ship people out here, but their private good of ‘places’ becomes a public good in Indonesia. How could they sell the ‘legitimate’ spots their journeys generate? If they can’t do that they can’t fund the original ‘illegitimate’ people smuggling journeys to Ashmore reef.

  36. Tel says:

    The snag I guess it that the whole point is to reduce the incentives for individuals to make the trip which means the offer to double entry of refugees is temporary and that in the long term if the incentives created are as we think and as they intended, the total Australian effort goes down not up.

    Presumably there are legitimate means for refugees to come to this country as well. The quota remember. Only a small percentage come here in leaky boats.

    … people smuggler gangs would quickly find a way to “game” such a system. For example, they would pay groups of “asylum seekers” to repeatedly make the sea journey so double the number of real asylum seekers could then get to Australia in comfort at Australian taxpayers’ expense.

    That sounds like a more genuine concern, it would require a corrupt channel to exist giving the smuggler gangs access to some Indonesian officials, and most likely the smugglers already have such channels. We could use biometric identification to fairly easily detect repeat visitors, so we could detect when we were being diddled.

    How could they sell the ‘legitimate’ spots their journeys generate?

    You seriously can’t think of any creative kickback scheme that allows public goods to be sold off to a select private market? You wouldn’t have lasted long under Communism :-)

  37. Tel says:

    May I say that the “Charter City” idea sounds very much like an attempt to create a bubble where the “Nanny State” rules we accept as normal no longer apply (minimum wage, universal health care, unemployment benefits, compo, public housing, etc) because those would be the primary attractions to business and investment in the Charter City. For example, if I had the choice of setting up a business either on the Tiwi Islands or in Western Sydney, and my costs were the same either way, I’d go for Western Sydney where infrastructure is better, education is (on average) better and I have the choice of a wider selection of employees.

    Given that the “Nanny State” supporters could not tolerate such a bubble bleeding investment out of their backyard, the “Charter City” will simply never exist by voluntary agreement of a modern western host nation (not in the current climate anyhow). It could only exist as an independent jurisdiction, and that implies military independence as well (or something close enough to military independence to ensure no one had courage to push their luck).

  38. Kien says:

    Hi, Tel. I think Singapore does provide universal heath care and public housing. I am sure it has other Nanny like qualities. The “value add” of a charter city (if I understand Romer correctly) is simply that it offers people “good rules” in which to thrive. As Singapore shows, good rules and social insurance need not be mutually exclusive.

    I understand a problem Singapore had was how to keep its citizens from migrating to other countries. That might be an even bigger problem for a charter city made up of people with weak ties to the city. I also wonder if it will be necessary to give the charter city a right to screen the people it takes and to limit the number of people it takes each year. Still, the charter city could be a partial solution for the world’s refugees.

    Romer is insistent that for a charter city to work, the host country must agree. He views charter cities as a development tool for a country unable to credibly commit to good rules. I am not sure what he thinks of charter cities as a solution for the world’s refugees.

  39. Tel says:

    Just waking up an old thread here.

    Did I see on the news that the Gillard government is trying out the Bolt plan in Malaysia? And Abbott and Hockey are out there saying it can’t possibly work.

    That would put Abbott, Hockey and Ken Parish all on the same team, with Andrew Bolt supporting the ALP. Sun Tsu would have been awestruck by such a maneuver.

  40. observa says:

    We already have charter cities for economic refugees. They’re called Syd, Melb, Bris, etc, etc and they’ll risk drowning and burning to get to get to them so 85% of them can be sitting on welfare after 5 years, with no educational qualifications and little English by all accounts. No need as taxpayers provide interpreters anyway and if they struggle a bit with that there’s always the good folk down at Lakemba Mosque to assist them settle in.

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