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Oct 30, 2009

What the asylum seeker debate should be about

I wrote this at my old blog a year ago. I stand by it. It looks like some conservatives are keeping a we

I wrote this at my old blog a year ago. I stand by it.

It looks like some conservatives are keeping a weather eye on Australia’s territorial waters, as they prepare for an influx of illegal immigrants in the wake of changes to the mandatory detention policy. Apparently we are up to three boats bringing unauthorised arrivals since the new policy was announced.

Instead of comparing this year’s rate to previous years (e.g., five boats arrived during 2007), here is my reaction: so what? Even if there is an increase in the number of boats carrying unauthorised arrivals to Australian waters, why should I be so concerned about that?

In particular, why should I think it is better to have a policy with mandatory detention for all – even kids – that reduces the number of arrivals than to have a policy that treats people reasonably and humanely, even if it did mean that some more people might attempt to come here illegally?

For any unauthorised arrivals who have a legitimate claim to asylum, then I am happy if they find safety, security and prosperity in Australia. For unauthorised arrivals who do not have a legitimate claim, then they will be returned to their place of origin. For unauthorised arrivals who are a genuine security risk, they should be detained while their claims are assessed. I would prefer a system that achieves these appropriate outcomes over one that achieves the absolute minimal number of unauthorised arrivals.

My primary concern about the number of boats that attempt to bring people to Australia illegally is the safety of the passage – I would imagine that the last thing anyone wants to see is another SIEV-X. But attempting to prevent it by adopting a policy of locking up every man, woman and child who survives the trip makes no sense to me.

Toaf points out that, relative to other, less well-resourced parts of the world, our “burden” in terms of providing support to those in need of asylum is pretty minimal. I would rather see us consider how we can best identify and support those people who need it than argue about how to reduce the number of people who reach our shores.

I also think this from Jason Whittaker (whose whole post on Kevin Rudd is worth reading) captures where things stand:

They part with their life savings and crowd on leaky boats to escape unimaginable horror. They come in greater numbers not through domestic policy failure but as economic collapse and bloody war devastates more of the developed world. From the state-sanctioned brutality of Burma, or caught in the still simmering civil wars in Sri Lanka. They come from Afghanistan and Iraq, wars Australian troops participate in.

They set sail for Australia – the tired, the poor; these huddled masses yearning to breathe free – only to face further persecution if they get anywhere near our shores. We lock them up if they’re lucky enough to make the trip, or wipe our hands of them entirely if they fall short.

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33 comments

33 thoughts on “What the asylum seeker debate should be about

  1. Richard

    Back at ya.. I didn’t think I could address your longer answer in any greater detail than post 27

  2. zoot

    Am I missing something fundamental?

    My short answer is yes. You’ve already ignored my longer answer.

  3. Richard

    Hi Zoot,
    If it’s not, then I sincerely apologise for making that assumption. I just get a little frustrated, because I’m trying to highlight an angle on the debate that I don’t think has been seriously considered, and the logical conclusions of my position are the polar opposite of the one espoused in the original post. I therefore find myself more closely associated with the conservatives on this issue, and I haven’t yet heard a compelling argument why I am wrong. Am I missing something fundamental?

  4. zoot

    I think our compassion should extend to the worldwide refugee population

    Richard, I couldn’t agree more.

    not just the ones that arrive at our doorstep and who we can talk to.

    Are you suggesting that this is my position?

  5. Richard

    Hi Zoot,
    My opinions have been shaped in large part by conversations I have had with close friends who have worked for the UN and for not-for-profits in both African and South Asian refugee camps. I think our compassion should extend to the worldwide refugee population, not just the ones that arrive at our doorstep and who we can talk to.

  6. zoot

    Thank you Richard.
    When you wrote:

    … with the added tragedy for some that they were supposed to be resettled, but their spot was taken by someone with a slightly luckier lot in life who managed to get to Australia first.

    I presumed you knew of people who had been accepted by Australia and had the decision reversed because of some boat arrivals. Apparently I was mistaken, in which case I don’t really understand your use of the term “added tragedy”.

  7. Richard

    Hi zoot,
    You’re right, I don’t think we’re quite on the same wavelength.
    Regarding your first point, I’m not saying people can’t come here and apply for asylum. Almost by definition they would have had to already fled their native country. The uncomfortable but necessary (I think) part of my solution though is that once they’ve been assessed as refugees, they should have to stay in a refugee camp until the UNHCR recommends that they get a resettlement spot (after due consideration of all the other people in refugee camps around the world). I’m not convinced they should immediately get a resettlement spot as is presently the case.

    Regarding your second point, my statement is based on the following logic, please challenge me if you think its unreasonable. First assumption: it isn’t free to resettle a refugee. It costs the government money to provide the services necessary to successfully integrate the refugee into our society (http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/66ihss.htm). To do that, the government has a budget, limited by the taxes we all pay (ignoring deficits), and a certain percentage of that budget is allocated to resettling refugees. We can argue about what size budget the government should allocate to resettle refugees, but I don’t think we can argue that whatever size budget we agree on directly corresponds to a limited number of refugees. The government over the last few years has budgeted for about 13-14,000 resettlements per year, and has budgeted for 13,750 resettlements in FY09/10 (http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/60refugee.htm) (Apologies my number of 11,000 or so was based only on the off-shore component). The only way to increase that number is to convince the government to spend more on refugee resettlement.
    Illegal immigrants are different, as they are not entitled to any social services, so therefore they don’t directly cost the government anything. If you’re happy to resettle refugees in Australia without providing them any social services until they start paying taxes, then sure, we could double or even triple the number.

    Regarding your third point, given that there are a limited number of resettlement positions available, the government then has to decide who to give them to. Again, referring to the above website, as the number of onshore protection visa’s issue has gone up since 2003, the off-shore visa numbers (refugee + Special Humanitarian Visa) have fallen*. As one goes up, the other has to fall. The turning away happens in the budgeting process, not of course in the way you describe, but the net effect on the otherwise eligible off-shore person is exactly the same, they don’t get to come to Australia.

    * I realise the effect has only been in the SHV numbers, and if you want I’ll argue that point in a separate post, this is already getting pretty long.

  8. zoot

    Sorry Richard, but while I’m here can you provide a pointer to those people who have been turned away by Australia because their place was taken by a queue jumper?
    I intend to contact DIMIAC this week and complain about their unconscionable treatment of vulnerable people but I’m unable to find any details. I’m sure you can provide them.

  9. zoot

    You seem to have misunderstood me Richard. My suggestion that you speak to some boat people was not intended to wrench your heart, it was offered in the hope that you would get a better idea of the realities that these people have had to cope with and why there is no refugee queue.
    To partially quote A Just Australia (Google them):

    Many asylum seekers come from countries where there is no UNHCR office and no Australian embassy (e.g. Iraq or Afghanistan). Even in a country with a UNHCR office, a refugee may not physically be able to get there to register, perhaps because of roadblocks, curfews and travel restrictions. Sometimes, going to a UNHCR office and/or expressing a desire to leave may literally put your life at risk or expose you to a greater degree of danger. Sometimes refugees are prevented from registering for political reasons.

    With the greatest respect, your idea is unworkable and unfair.
    In your original comment you state that Australia can afford to resettle only about 11,000 people per year for humanitarian reasons. What is your basis for this statement and what are the limiting factors? Since we can easily accommodate more than 50,000 illegal immigrants (those who have overstayed their visas), why can’t we (say) double the number of refugees we resettle?

  10. Richard

    Hi Zoot,
    Sorry you’re right, that was poorly worded. The UNHCR does however run the global resettlement program (http://www.unhcr.org/pages/4a16b1676.html) and I do think it should be that organisations responsibility to manage the ‘orderly queue’.

    Might I suggest that you go and talk to some of the refugees that are still stuck in refugee camps around the world (some of whom I support through World Vision). Their stories are just as heart wrenching as the people we have allowed to settle in Australia, with the added tragedy for some that they were supposed to be resettled, but their spot was taken by someone with a slightly luckier lot in life who managed to get to Australia first.

    I am saying that anybody who applies for asylum in Australia, whether they arrive by boat or plane, should be kept in a refugee camp (Australian run) until the UNHCR says its their turn to be resettled (not an arbitrary ‘suitable length of time’). The lot of a refugee is bad enough, I don’t see why we should make it worse for those stuck in foreign refugee camps by giving away their resettlement spot to the slightly more lucky refugees who have managed to make it into our backyard and nightly news reports.

    The alternative to an orderly queue is a system where the most vulnerable always lose out to the marginally less vulnerable, and in my opinion that’s why an orderly queue should always remain the goal of any humanitarian refugee policy.

  11. zoot

    The additional benefit of this approach is that people smuggling should disappear, as people come to understand that it doesn’t matter which UNHCR run refugee camp you are processed in. That’s because your chances of being resettled in Australia are exactly the same if you apply for refugee status in any UNHCR run camp, including this hypothetical one in Australia.

    I think you’ll find the UNHCR doesn’t “run” refugee camps.
    And bear in mind that we discriminate against people who arrive by boat. Those who fly in are not treated the same way. Are you suggesting that people who arrive by air and then apply for refugee status should be housed in camps for a suitable length of time as well?
    Might I suggest you do a little research? Go and talk to some of the boat people we have allowed to settle in Australia; listen to their stories. Then decide if your plan for an orderly queue is at all practical.

  12. Richard

    Alderon,
    Sorry for misunderstanding you. The difficult question though is what should we do with the refugees once they are processed? My opinion still is that the UNHCR should be responsible for deciding who gets to be resettled in each country. I don’t think that just because someone is assessed to be a refugee they should immediately be permanently resettled here in Australia (the current situation I believe). I think the UNHCR should have a system based mostly on how long people have been waiting in refugee camps, because I still think those who have waited longest should get first priority on the resettlement spots. Unfortunately that logically implies that Australia will have to maintain a refugee camp while people wait for resettlement positions to come up, but I can’t think of a fairer way of dealing with the global refugee population, can you?
    The additional benefit of this approach is that people smuggling should disappear, as people come to understand that it doesn’t matter which UNHCR run refugee camp you are processed in. That’s because your chances of being resettled in Australia are exactly the same if you apply for refugee status in any UNHCR run camp, including this hypothetical one in Australia.

  13. Aldaron

    Richard,
    I’m agreeing with you, actually. Sorry if it came across differently – I was reinforcing that we *agree* on the issue that refugees should be processed in Australia.

  14. Richard

    Aldaron,
    I’m not quite sure how what I’m suggesting would hide the refugees from the Australian people, if anything hosting a refugee camp on Australian soil would highlight the plight of the worldwide population of refugees that all need our help. I can’t see how its right to focus our sympathy only on those refugees that are able to make it here – my sympathy extends just a little further to those refugees who don’t have even the resources to do that, and who are losing out every time someone does make it to our shores (or airports).
    Full disclosure, I sponsor World Vision and see with all their mailings the desperate situations refugees are living in around the world. That’s why I can’t ignore their plight.

    Macondo, applying for asylum is one thing, but how many of those refugees are being permanently resettled in those countries?

  15. macondo

    Inside Story blog features an excellent article showing how wrong are those who claim we’re being ‘flooded’ by ‘so-called refugees’ and that the abandonment of the ‘Pacific Solution’ is encouraging this ‘flood’. Australia is well down the list of numbers per capita. Just compare the number now arriving in countries like Canada, Austria and the Netherlands:
    http://inside.org.au/a-soft-touch-not-according-to-the-latest-figures/

  16. Aldaron

    Richard,
    Ah, I see what you’re saying.

    Yep, my opposition is to the ” Solution” programs. To me, it’s a way of hiding refugees from the Australian people so they can be kept in there for years without the general population knowing about it.

  17. Richard

    Hi Aldaran
    There’s a difference between taking in refugees (i.e. running a refugee camp), and resettling them into the broader society. I’ll accept that Australia ranks 51st in the world for taking in refugees (noting our humanitarian aid program does make significant contributions to the running of other nations refugee camps), but I still maintain that when it comes to resettling refugees into our society we rank 1st or 2nd per capita depending on the year. According to the 2008 UNHCR Global Trends report, there were 88,800 refugees resettled worldwide in 2008. Of those, the USA resettled 60,200 (http://www.unhcr.org/4a375c426.html) and in Australia “13 507 visas were granted, of which 11 010 visas were granted under the offshore component and 2497 visas were granted under the onshore component” (http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/60refugee.htm). Turns out not many other western nations are resettling refugees in the quantities we or the USA are.

    Like I said above I’m happy to run refugee camps in Australia which could push up our ranking from 51st in the world. However when it comes to resettling refugees, every visa that is granted under the onshore component means that one less visa will be granted under the offshore component and I’m concerned that this trade-off is not being acknowledged. I still would prefer my taxes pay to resettle the refugee that has absolutely nothing and hence has had to live in a refugee camp for 10+ years, than to resettle the refugee that has through luck and good fortune managed to accumulate the resources throughout their life to pay a smuggler (or the plane ticket) to get to Australia and skip living in a refugee camp, given that we have to choose one or the other.

  18. Aldaron

    “The second issue though is who should we spend money on resettling into Australian society? We (Australia) can afford to resettle only about 11,000 people per year for humanitarian reasons, which per capita is either the most or second most in the western world depending on which year you look at.”

    That’s actually a myth perpetrated by successive Australian governments. In reality, Australia (according to the UNHCR) is ranked 51st in the world for taking in refugees, which comprises 0.2% of the world total – and we have about 0.4% of the world’s population. Moreover, the greatest contributions to helping refugees come from the world’s poorest nations, including places such as Pakistan, Syria and Tanzania.

    “However as we all know that’s only a drop in the ocean compared to the number of legitimate refugees fleeing persecution stuck in squalid refugee camps around the world for many, many years.”

    Yes, but every life saved is still a life saved, nu?

    “Of all those legitimate refugees, there’s a lucky few who somehow also have the resources to pay for a boat or plane fare to get to Australia. My question is why should we give one of these limited resettlement positions to someone who hasn’t had to spend any time in the refugee camps just because they have the resources to get all the way to Australia?”

    Well, three points to this:

    1) Spending time in a refugee camp shouldn’t be a “qualifier” to a person’s need

    2) Most of the time, the ability to get here/not get here is a matter of luck or random chance

    3) The time spent in refugee camps before having one’s claim to refugee status is usually *years*

    “Now I’m all for having a humanitarian refugee resettlement program and I’m proud that Australia punches above its weight in this regard. ”

    Except that we don’t.

    “I’m just of the opinion that there are people more desperate and hence more deserving of my tax money than the people who have the resources to make it all the way here (whether it be by boat or plane). ”

    But you’re lumping apples and oranges together. The people arriving here by plane have the money to buy an airline ticket from an airline, a passport, and the ability to obtain an entry visa.

    The people arriving by boat have none of this. At best, they hand over their few meagre possessions (that are in the refugee camp with them) to a people smuggler and get on a boat, usually with no idea where they’re going.

    “The uncomfortable truth is that we can’t help everyone,”

    Nobody is suggesting we can. But the *miniscule* numbers of people coming our way by boat are certainly within our capacity to help.

    ” and I don’t think it’s fair for those who can make it all the way here to take the resettlement position of someone who’s had to wait many years in worse conditions in other refugee camps around the world.”

    In most cases, they are one and the same – that’s *why* they’ve become desperate enough to risk their and their family’s lives on leaking boat…

  19. Richard

    zoot,
    I’m not saying turn them away, I’m saying keep them in refugee camps here in Australia for a number of years until its their turn to get resettled according to the UNHCR. I can’t accept that some poor family stuck in a refugee camp elsewhere in the world should have to lose their spot to come to Australia simply because some other refugee managed to make it all the way to Australia to apply for asylum. Its intellectually lazy not to acknowledge that the refugee in the foreign camp does lose when we take their spot to resettle a refugee who made it all the way here. Just because the plight of the refugee in the foreign camp isn’t on the front page or nightly news doesn’t mean they not directly affected.

  20. zoot

    Supplementary question Richard.
    Experience shows us that the overwhelming majority of the people who arrive here by boat are genuine refugees. Are you seriously suggesting that Australia (that punches above it’s weight when it comes to refugee resettlement) should start turning genuine refugees away?

  21. zoot

    My question is why should we give one of these limited resettlement positions to someone who hasn’t had to spend any time in the refugee camps just because they have the resources to get all the way to Australia?

    My answer is why not?
    What’s your answer Richard?

  22. Richard

    There are still two issues here IMO. The first is where and how to process these asylum seekers. So we’re clear I’m perfectly happy for anyone who makes it to Australia to be processed here humanely and quickly.

    The second issue though is who should we spend money on resettling into Australian society? We (Australia) can afford to resettle only about 11,000 people per year for humanitarian reasons, which per capita is either the most or second most in the western world depending on which year you look at. However as we all know that’s only a drop in the ocean compared to the number of legitimate refugees fleeing persecution stuck in squalid refugee camps around the world for many, many years. Of all those legitimate refugees, there’s a lucky few who somehow also have the resources to pay for a boat or plane fare to get to Australia. My question is why should we give one of these limited resettlement positions to someone who hasn’t had to spend any time in the refugee camps just because they have the resources to get all the way to Australia?
    Now I’m all for having a humanitarian refugee resettlement program and I’m proud that Australia punches above its weight in this regard. I’m just of the opinion that there are people more desperate and hence more deserving of my tax money than the people who have the resources to make it all the way here (whether it be by boat or plane). The uncomfortable truth is that we can’t help everyone, and I don’t think it’s fair for those who can make it all the way here to take the resettlement position of someone who’s had to wait many years in worse conditions in other refugee camps around the world.

  23. RobJ

    “I’m not prepared to say the government is lying as there’s no evidence this is the case.”

    I don’t think they are lying either, just being bastards.

  24. kyneton

    “Someone made a good point on Q&A last night, John Howard used some of the political capital invested in his popularity to take on the gun lobby and change our firearms laws. Rudd, take a cue from Howard and expend some of your popularity to teach Australians about asylum seekers. Stop trying to play both sides of the debate. Why do you even want the vote of bigots?”

    That wouldve been “Psycho” Catherine Deveny, that bi polar wack job who hates shopping centres. I love Catherine, she was merely trying to be as unbureaucratic as she possibly could when she made this point. I dont think she wielded any swords around and shreaked an hollared like youd expect some crazy nut in the community might do. She merely protested to Abbot that he was being a bit dull. As he is. This immigration issue is not gonna change unless we fundamentally change the two party system, which the media is addicted to like some kind of cow tit. Both parties play dog whistle politics and it was repeatedly stated that there is really no essential difference between both major parties. The media doesnt do much to highlight the similarities and plays both parties game because its more convenient and expedient.

  25. confessions

    [But were the asylum seekers rescued? Was the boat about to sink?]

    It was reported that the boat was in trouble and the people on board needed to be rescued. This was confirmed by Stephen Smith on 7.30 report the other night:

    [STEPHEN SMITH: Well Kerry, no. This started as a rescue on the high seas. This has been used to make or try and make by some broader implications, but I think it is important to go back to basics.

    We received a request from the Indonesian authorities to assist in the rescue of a boat in distress. It was in the Indonesian search and rescue area. There were no Indonesian assets, ships around. We inquired as to whether there were any commercial vessels around, there weren’t. So we did the right thing. We rescued the boat.]

    I’m not prepared to say the government is lying as there’s no evidence this is the case.

  26. RobJ

    3. Process them IN AUSTRALIA.

    zombie mao for PRESIDENT errr PM…

  27. Dotty Daphon

    Is it OK to link to another blog’s take on this issue ’cause this nails Rudd to a tee on this issue (and his whole PM’ship):

    http://newmatilda.com/2009/10/30/where-are-we-going-kevin

  28. zombie mao for Alannah

    3. Process them IN AUSTRALIA.

    problem solved.next.

  29. silkworm

    “…the asylum seekers were rescued in international waters where the law says they are to be taken to the nearest port. That was in Indonesia.”

    This is the new line that the government is using to defend its actions. But were the asylum seekers rescued? Was the boat about to sink?

  30. confessions

    Peter van Onselan in today’s Oz:

    [KEVIN Rudd should ask himself one simple question – would he rather be locked up in a detention centre in Nauru run by Australia or one in Indonesia run by the Indonesians?

    If his answer is the latter then he can go on believing he has improved the humanitarian standards of Australia’s approach to border protection. Otherwise, he should drop the moral superiority act lest he be embarrassed by the emptiness of his rhetoric. ]

    There are 2 holes in his argument from my perspective:

    1. the asylum seekers were rescued in international waters where the law says they are to be taken to the nearest port. That was in Indonesia. This is exactly what happened when the Tampa rescued asylum seekers, the only difference is Indonesia refused to let the ship dock, hence the issues we had.

    2. has the Rudd government even said it is planning a detention and processing procedure whereby asylum seekers automatically diverted to Indonesia for processing, regardless of where they are intercepted? That’s what the pacific solution was.

  31. confessions

    Rudd has become a victim of his own rhetoric. By telling us they would take a humane approach to asylum seekers and declaring that women and children (esp children) wouldn’t be locked up, he’s made a rod for his own back now. Nothing short of what he promised will be acceptable.

    In a way Rudd already has changed the debate by using the words humane and dignified. Abbott was on Q&A last night going on about children being detained, conveniently forgetting that his government did nothing to reverse the policy. It makes a stark contrast between the Liberals defacto leader in Tuckey rabbitting on about forcible removals. Abbott realises the public sentiment has shifted, people don’t want to go back to the bitter, mean-spirited howard years, and there are no large voting blocs to be won by trying to whip up fear. So even with Tuckey and the has-beens like him trying it on, it’s not working and the opposition have had to shift their attacks on the government.

    There are no logical arguments against processing asylum seekers on the mainland. Public sentiment has shifted on this issue, and the PM is overwhelmingly trusted by voters – swamping Turnbull – and by his cabinet. It’s time the hate-filled bigots who dominate talkback radio and tabloid editorial staff are consigned to the wilderness. Won’t this country be the better for it!

  32. Aldaron

    Tobia and RobJ – couldn’t agree more.
    The number of people arriving by boat, so desperate for a new life that they literally risk their lives to do so – are vanishingly small in comparison to illegal immigrants living in Bondi and drinking lattes every day, yet they are demonised and attacked at every turn, and locked up in concentration camps for years until they are “processed”.

    How about a bit of freaking compassion? Is this the legacy of the 1980s “greed is good” schtick? That everything comes down to economics or cold, hard numbers? What happened to the concept of “Help the poor bastard!” when you see someone in strife, for crying out loud??

    I thought the Rudd government was actually going to redress some of the wrongs perpetrated by the Howard government, not just build on them. I sure as hell wouldn’t have put them #2 after the Greens on my ballot paper had I known this would have been their legacy…:(

  33. RobJ

    Hear hear ToBBY!

    Thing is, to Rudd and Turnbull and thier ilk this isn’t about human beings who desperately require our assistance and compassion, this is about politics and votes at the next election. They are despicable people.

    Someone made a good point on Q&A last night, John Howard used some of the political capital invested in his popularity to take on the gun lobby and change our firearms laws. Rudd, take a cue from Howard and expend some of your popularity to teach Australians about asylum seekers. Stop trying to play both sides of the debate. Why do you even want the vote of bigots?