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Australia's 20 year search for the right asylum policy

  • 26 June 2012

Last week’s tragedy of another mass loss of life at sea between Indonesia and Christmas Island focuses our minds yet again on an intractable public policy problem for Australia – our search for a coherent, workable and moral asylum policy.  Tonight I will be unashamedly simplistic in my conclusion:  decent offshore processing wherever it might occur is no solution unless there be a regional commitment to regional resettlement for those proved to be refugees.  If there not be a regional commitment to regional resettlement, those found to be refugees will still be guaranteed a first-world migration outcome and that will not stop the boats.  Desperate people with the prospect of permanent settlement in Australia will endure a long wait anywhere – whether it be Malaysia or Nauru.  What they will not pay for is a boat journey which results in their being put at the end of a queue which is 90,000 long.  That’s not decent offshore processing.  That’s indecent offshore dumping.

In 2009, I was privileged to chair the National Human Rights Consultation Committee.  During that inquiry we commissioned some very detailed research on Australian attitudes.  A random telephone poll of 1200 Australians disclosed that over 70% of us think that the mentally ill, the aged, and persons with disabilities need greater protection from violation of their human rights.  Quizzed about a whole range of minority groups, there was only one group in relation to whom the Australian population was split right down the middle.  While 28% thought that asylum seekers needed greater protection, 42% thought we had the balance right, and 30% thought that asylum seekers deserved less protection.  By way of comparison, 32% thought that gays and lesbians needed greater protection, 50% thought we had the balance right, and only 18% thought that gays and lesbians deserved less protection. 

Australia is a long time signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 protocol.  It is one of the few countries in the region having ratified the Convention. Indonesia and Malaysia are not parties to the Convention.  Since the Vietnam War, there have been periodic waves of boat people heading for Australia seeking asylum.  These boat people often pass through Malaysia and/or Indonesia.  Under the Convention, parties undertake three key obligations:

Not to impose for illegal entry or unauthorized presence in their country any penalty on refugees coming directly from a territory where they are threatened, provided only that the