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Coalition's new nasties for asylum seekers


The Coalition's new asylum seeker policy is best described as a work in regress. It returns to the policy it put into practice when in government, adding new nasties that make it look tougher. The policy failed asylum seekers and Australian interests then and, if implemented, it would fail them again.

The core elements of the new policy are to reintroduce processing of asylum seekers outside Australia and to reintroduce temporary protection visas which excluded family reunion. A restriction on benefits would also be reintroduced. In addition those on temporary protection visas would be compelled to work, and efforts would be made to prevent asylum seekers from landing on Australian territory.

Offshore processing was harmful to Australia's interests previously because it depended for its effectiveness on the cooperation of other nations, but undermined the basis for cooperation. It expected other nations to receive those found to be refugees. Other nations sensibly believed that the protection of these refugees was Australia's responsibility by virtue of it having signed the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

The system also harmed Australia's interests because it corrupted administration. The judging of refugee claims was outside the rule of law and was arbitrary. Immigration Department officers acted as the moral equivalent of people smugglers, enticing uninformed and vulnerable asylum seekers to leave Nauru. According to Phil Glendenning, many who returned were killed on return to Afghanistan.

Even more important, prolonged detention is a cruel punishment for asylum seekers who, under the Convention, are guiltless in seeking protection in Australia. Patrick McGorry memorably described detention centres as factories for mental illness. They cause long term damage to people. Prolonged detention outside Australia, as in deserted areas of Australia, exacerbates the damage while keeping it out of the media. It does now to asylum seekers what the 'dark satanic mills' did to workers in the 19th century.

Temporary protection visas do little more than create anxiety, put lives on hold, keep husbands separated from wives, parents from children, and place more costs and burdens of review on the public service. Nor usually do conditions change in a short time for those who have been granted protection. Like prolonged detention and the exclusion of asylum seekers from income and the right to work, these visas are morally obnoxious because they are designed to make asylum seekers in Australia suffer, so that their suffering will deter others.

Pushing asylum seekers away from Australia's borders sounds attractive to those who like the sound of tough policies. But where do you push people to? If you are pushing people back on to someone else's land, the cooperation of the other nation will come only at a heavy cost, if at all. If you simply push people away, you will have to deal with the bad publicity that comes with their death.

In the late 1970s the Thai army initially pushed Cambodian refugees back on to Cambodian minefields, but was eventually forced by public opinion to desist. And the refugees still came because they faced even greater horrors in Cambodia.

To criticise the policy of the Opposition is not to endorse that of the Government. The suspension of visa processing, the prospective relocation of asylum seekers to harsh, isolated detention camps and the pressure to view Afghanistan and Sri Lanka as safe places of return, are unconscionable.

But the Coalition's policy on asylum seekers is worse. It appeals to prejudice about asylum seekers and not to the truth of why they come, to the truth of the relatively small burden they are to Australia. It is based on the systematic disrespect for asylum seekers, and not on respect for their humanity. It is designed to appeal to human baseness, not to human generosity.

It is also incompatible with the way, the truth and the life on which Christianity, and so Catholicism, is based. So as both an Australian and a Jesuit sponsored magazine, whose interest is in public life and whose moral centre is both Christian and Catholic, we deplore this policy.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, asylum seeker policy, abbott, howard, coalition, tpvs, off shore processing, nauru



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Existing comments

Thanks to Fr Andrew for his excellent article critiquing the policies of both Government and the Opposition on asylum seekers. I am deeply shocked by again seeing people being demonised and used as a political football simply because they have fled persecution and asked our country for help. When will our media and politicians firmly renounce this populist fear-mongering? Is it not a form of political corruption that such vulnerable people can be so cruelly mistreated, all for cheap political advantage?

Bruce Duncan | 31 May 2010  

Keep up the pressure. Both parties need to lift their game. Attacking asylum seekers is attacking the wrong problem.

RFI Smith | 31 May 2010  

I fully agree with the article by Andrew Hamilton, particularly the last two paragraphs... It appears that Abbott's recently announced lack of credibility extends to his Christan/Catholic protestations.

It would be helpful if his marathon running took him along the road to Emmaus for an epiphany of true Christlike love to do unto the least of suffering humanity desperately seeking asylum in Australia.

Dr Vacy Vlazna | 31 May 2010  

Good on you, Andy. Succinctly put. I hope it can help to make a difference.

Margaret Gibson | 31 May 2010  

A splendid piece, Andrew. Where is the humanity of those to whom it is addressed.
You talk of policies 'designed to make [some people] suffer so that their suffering will deter others.' Is this not a precise definition of "terror"?

Joe Castley | 31 May 2010  

Thank you for the article Andrew. If only the voices contrary to these policies could be heard loudly and clearly by both the Government and the Opposition! The chase for (perceived) votes has removed a moral underpinning of a just policy for asylum seekers.

Barbara Brown-Graham FCJ | 31 May 2010  

It's also incompatible with 'humanity'

Greig Williams | 31 May 2010  

The current policies make illegal entry and the use of people smugglers far more attractive than legal immigration. It is important to make illegal migration less attractive than legal migration. The recent changes by the Rudd Government has gone some way towards a fairer treatment of all migrants and it may reduce the cruel people smuggling business. The current opposition has also made some promises towards a fairer migration policy. I believe a fairer and more equitable policy with less discrimination as prosed by the opposition, is far more “Christian” and or “Catholic” then a policy which rewards breaking our laws.

Beat Odermatt | 31 May 2010  

You are simply preaching to the choir, Andrew. Beyond that, others already find Eureka Street to be far too ideologically shallow to take any of its moral pronouncements seriously.

One can always make an argument to prove that he has God on his side, but if you are sincere in wanting asylum seekers not to be used as political footballs, then I suggest you lead by example and start with yourself.

Nathan Socci | 31 May 2010  

Beat Odermatt, what are these laws that you think asylum seekers are breaking? There are no laws against refugees coming to Australia.

And Nathan Socci, do you think it's wrong to object to using people as political footballs because to do so is to use those people as political footballs yourself? That's an interesting new way to stifle criticism.

Gavan Breen | 31 May 2010  

I recently wrote to Tony Abbott making some of the pints you have made, Andrew, particularly about the contradictions with Catholic teaching (and, in my opinion, about how the fear campaign makes me nauseous about being Australian.)

Needless to say, no response.

Keep at it! Please.

Erik H | 31 May 2010  

Why have I not yet read such a robust and unequivocal condemnation of abortion in a Eureka Street editorial or article, as I read here of the opposition's policy on asylum-seekers?

Eureka Street cites the magazine's moral centre as being both Christian and Catholic. Thus it brings the whole moral authority of the Church behind this editorial view. Yet when it comes to abortion, Eureka Street is not so quick to quote Catholic teaching then.

Father Andrew has sadly fallen short of the mark himself on this very issue. During the American presidential election he criticised some brave American bishops for being "divisive" when they challenged Obama for his view pro-abortion stance.

Michael Mullins' recent article on the homosexuality and "homophobia" sought to neither explore nor explain, let alone defend, the Church's view on human sexuality.

When it suits Eureka Street, they will cite their orthodox Catholic credentials to strengthen their moral outrage. But it will most often be for safe causes, ones where they know that they and their secular fellow-travellers will not have a falling out.

Patrick James | 31 May 2010  

Patrick James, the fact that Eureka Street may sometimes be pretty hopeless (and sometimes pretty good) on important issues (and what daily paper isn't?), doesn't mean that Andrew Hamilton's argument is wrong here. To me, it does tend to confuse the public debate to measure public policy with a mixture of secular analysis and an explicit faith based position, whatever the compatibility. But it is a Catholic magazine after all. Nothing much is perfect, life goes on, and the real issue is that asylum seekers may be about to be kicked senseless. We should support those like Andrew Hamilton who speak up on this issue.

The practical impact of the former TPV policy and the 45 day rule on the lives of asylum seekers was so cruel and poisonous, and led to so much suffering, that it beggars belief any informed person could contemplate reintroducing them. The Liberal moderates are not lying about this stuff. Nor are the refugee advocates and countless volunteers on the ground. Nor is Andrew Hamilton.

Just because a people smuggler is involved in the transport to Australia does not mean we should wreak havoc on an asylum seeker's life in the name of 'policy'. Last time, too many people said too little for too long. Hopefully that won't happen again, whatever some pollster suggests.

Julian McMahon | 31 May 2010  

I am tired of articles on illegal entrants and the constant bashing of the government and opposition policies. First of all these are mainly economic asylum seekers, they have broken Australian law by entering illegally. How many boats are you going to allow? Our policies are one of the most liberal anywhere in the world. I am also a staunch Catholic, and I do not support law breaking illegal entrants entering into Australia indefinitely. Does the Church allow one to break government rules?

I would like to be anonymous | 31 May 2010  

Julian, I deliberately made no comment on the content of this article. The main reason for this is because I am undecided on the this complex issue. Father Andrew's points are well made and I do not dismiss them out of hand by any means.

The main reason for my previous post was to express disappointment that similarly strong opinions were not voiced on matters where the Church teaching is clear.

After reading this magazine for some time, I do not look to Eureka Street for a clear and sympathetic exposition and defense of Catholic teaching. That is a cause of grave concern to me.

Patrick James | 31 May 2010  

I agree with Patrick that this issue is complex (and that there are several considerations to weigh up in order to formulate a policy) but also with Julian that we cause or exacerbate real suffering to real people by some policy responses. I don't myself have a neat answer.

But I don't understand why anyone needs to feel concern if their own view of other topics, such as abortion, is not reflected in the scope or tone of ES articles. There are many online sources, each with its special focus and one is free to read what one finds interesting. If one wants to read only what one already thinks, that choice is available too.

I find ES articles present thoughtful analyses on topics which are either overlooked or poorly treated in other places. It seems therefore misplaced to feel let down by any individual online emphasis. I think we get disappointed when someone doesn't say what we want them to say because we have placed our hopes in another instead of in ourselves. We should all aim to work out our own values and remember that that goes for everyone.

Stephen Kellett | 31 May 2010  

Gavan Breen:

Catholic bishops are already questioning the coalition's proposed changes to asylum seeker policy but as Tony Abbott is not in power, don't count your chickens until they've hatched. It may never happen.

Nathan Socci | 31 May 2010  

Do you think we could have a moratorium on bleeding-heart articles about asylum seekers and how dreadful, even immoral, are the policies and practices of both our major political parties - until someone (where are you Eureka Street when we need you?) comes up with an alternative real, practical, workable, and moral, alternative?

John R. Sabine | 31 May 2010  

There is nothing remotely complex except when stupid pollies make it so.

Under Australian law anyone has the right to seek asylum in Australia without fear of punishment for not having papers.


Marilyn | 03 June 2010  

I've been a reader of Andy Hamilton's articles in Eureka Street for a long time. I am certain if one looks back he has made it clear in a number of articles his orthodoxy when it comes to the Catholic Church's teaching on the issue of abortion. But, the Catholic Church's teaching on orthodoxy was not the subject of the Coalition's policy announcement last week. Their policy on asylum seekers was.

The real hypocrisy is that of Tony Abbott, who on the one hand wants to staunchly defend the Catholic Church's teaching on abortion and on the other hand play a political game with vulnerable people whose only offence is to seek asylum. The real hypocrisy is that when he does so he pays scant regard to Catholic Social teaching and any critcism he receives from people like Andy Hamilton he just disregards because he knows in political terms he's playing a winning hand.

And to those who want to focus on the vulnerability of unborn life and the sanctity of human life, what about the vulnerability of the lives of refugees and the sanctity of their lives. Because let us never forget that roughly 80% to 90% of those asylum seekers on the Tampa were subsequently found to be genuine refugees, but only after the Howard Government had subjected them to 4 1/2 years of isolation and psychological torture on Nauru.

Nick Dunstan | 04 June 2010  

To Gaven Breen, since when has it been legal to enter any country without permission? I remain amazed how so-called Christians can support breaking laws? Everyone needs a visa or permission to enter Australia. If you happen to be an American Billionaire, a drug lord from Afghanistan, a rich merchant from Iraq or a genuine political refugee, there is a legal framework to police migration.

Beat Odermatt | 04 June 2010  

i agree with the opinion of the matter but y do u say australia is a christian nation

James | 04 June 2010  

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