This collection of essays is produced by Australia21, a non-partisan, not-for-profit organisation that brings together diverse thinkers to generate ideas for Australia’s future. The publication was generously funded by a Pozible crowdfunding campaign, ensuring editorial independence. The essays range from the anecdotal, to the philosophical, to the practical, as each essayist writes from their own experience and expertise.
Each contributor adds a valuable, thoughtful and nuanced contribution to the asylum seeker policy debate. The publication is bookended by essays from refugees Widyan Al Ubudy and Besmellah Rezaee, now settled in Australia and making impressive contributions to the community. This is poignant in two respects. First, they both embody a recurring theme of the publication: that policy discussions need to be reframed with the humanity of refugees in mind. As Arnold Zable argues in his essay, ‘We need tales that can heal the divisive politics that have infected the nation in recent years’. Second, they are exemplars of the research by the Immigration Department (cited by Jane McAdam in her essay), which found that refugees are some of Australia’s most productive and successful people, with higher levels of education, entrepreneurial qualities and higher levels of workforce participation and volunteerism than other migrants and the Australian-born population.
Several essayists managed to successfully facilitate a paradoxical but exquisite marriage of pragmatism with idealism. For example Julian Burnside argues that the various incarnations of the Pacific Solution ‘[involve] Australia in breaches of various international human rights standards but, more importantly, they sit badly with our vision of ourselves as a generous, decent nation’. He then pitches his policy solution, whereby refugees would live and work in rural towns or regional cities, with access to Centrelink and Medicare (as well as regular reporting requirements). This would yield a $3.5 billion per year saving compared to current policy, and provide continuous injections into sluggish rural economies. Burnside’s policy proposal is thus grounded in values, law and financial sense.
Similarly, John Hewson’s approach is both idealistic and pragmatic. He proposes that Australia’s refugee intake could be increased to half our annual immigration intake. That is approximately 100 000 people — just a touch more ambitious than Abbott’s 13 750! But Hewson goes further, commenting that ‘an immigration level of even this order of magnitude is still only some 0.8 per cent of our annual population increase which some, including myself, think is far too low, especially given the longer-term challenges of an ageing population, prospective skill shortages, and so on.’
As Gillian Triggs points out, it is clear that deterring boats through mandatory detention and offshore processing is inhumane, ineffective and illegal under international law. Jane McAdam also correctly asserts that international law does not discriminate by mode of arrival but instead asks whether there is a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’. Nevertheless, while there is a compelling moral and legal imperative to demonstrate compassion for those washed up on our shores, it is also important as a matter of policy to address the moral issue of preventing deaths at sea and ensuring visas are allocated fairly.
Asylum seekers currently feel as if they have no choice but to risk their life in a leaky boat. A recurring theme across most of the essays was that the key to at least discouraging, if not stopping people from taking the perilous boat journey, was to broker a regional solution. Some suggestions worthy of further exploration include:
- Improving access to either the UNHCR or domestic asylum systems in countries such as Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Many asylum seekers are currently denied access to UNHCR or have to wait years for initial interviews (Paul Power, Refugee Council of Australia).
- The establishment of an ‘offshore processing centre’ in Indonesia. This would be operated by both Indonesia and Australia in conjunction with the UNHCR (John Hewson).
- Stricter Indonesian laws against people smugglers with effective enforcement (John Hewson).
- Boat arrivals from Indonesia, provided they were not in flight from persecution in Indonesia, should be flown back to Indonesia. In exchange for cooperation, Australia would take, one for one, UNHCR approved refugees from refugee camps in Indonesia. (Frank Brennan, quoting Alexander Downer).
These ideas of humane deterrence and a regional solution may be pursued within a paradigm of harm-minimisation. The harm minimisation approach is advocated by Desmond Manderson, who argues that the asylum seeker problem is like the drug problem. There is no ‘magic bullet’ to stop boat arrivals while remaining humane, and thus, the best we can do is aim to reduce the harm caused to refugees. With this in mind, deterring boats to stop deaths at sea could then become one sub-goal in reaching the ultimate policy goal of harm-minimisation. Another sub-goal could be brokering a regional solution — a key that was agreed upon by several authors of the publication.
However, while the virtues of a ‘regional solution’ were heralded throughout the publication, the details of what such a solution would look like was not expounded in depth by any of the contributors. Almost every author commented on how the ‘queue’ for resettlement is more like a ‘lottery’ (and hence that the corresponding pejorative ‘queue-jumper’ is misplaced). However, there was no corresponding commentary on the feasibility of transforming that ‘lottery’ into a ‘queue’ (or at least a more efficient process with real hope for a successful outcome at the end). Thus, there is ample room for envisioning and debating the specifics of a regional solution.
Overall, editors Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas and Jo Wodak deserve to be congratulated on this outstanding publication. The collective heart, wisdom, experience and grace of the essayists has coalesced into a launchpad for better policy-making. As the publication is distributed to stakeholders and policymakers in 2014, let it be the catalyst for fresh perspective on the refugee and asylum seeker debate.
MICHELLE BLEWETT is a solicitor committed to seeking justice for the oppressed. She has a particular interest in asylum seeker issues.