'No advantage' policy more harmful than leaky boats


The Federal Government is using its imagination and casting around for further ways to be cruel to asylum seekers living in the community on bridging visas. Fairfax reported on Friday that the Immigration Department has invited church groups to suggest measures that would make the lives of asylum seekers more difficult, as part of its 'no advantage' policy.

The policy is the most politically palatable of the measures recommended by the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers when it handed down its report in August. It promotes disincentives that will cause asylum seekers to decide against taking 'irregular maritime voyages', by ensuring that they gain 'no benefit by choosing not to seek protection through established mechanisms'.

Last week, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen announced conditions under which asylum seekers will be released into the community. These include a living allowance that is less than the dole and a ban on working for five years, even after they have been granted asylum.

The Sisters of St Joseph are one of the religious groups working with asylum seekers in the community. Their leader Sr Anne Derwin says life is already difficult for asylum seekers living in the community.

'No work rights, extremely limited available housing, language and cultural difficulties and an allowance of $219.20 a week without any concessions, means that quality of life is almost impossible without generous community support. Now the bridging visas with the constant threat of offshore transfer will exacerbate the distress already being felt by these most vulnerable people who seek only safety and a fair go.'

As part of getting its 'no advantage' deterrence message to potential asylum seekers in their countries of origin, the Government would have to be encouraging international media coverage of the extent of the cruelty. One wonders whether that includes when an asylum seeker commits suicide, which is the logical consequence of this policy for some people.

The fact is that if you treat people harshly, you will diminish them as human beings, and they will cease to value their own lives. Already they are prohibited from working. They will have difficulty sustaining relationships and it is unlikely they will feel that they can make a positive contribution to society, perhaps ever. This undermines the justification for the initial harsh treatment. 

One of the stated reason for the 'no advantage' policy is that dangerous maritime voyages put the asylum seekers' lives at risk, but surely no more than the 'no advantage' policy itself.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, asylum seekers, no advantage, Chris Bowen, Sisters of St Joseph



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Existing comments

Is $219.20 the total amount a refugee is expected to live on? Are there other benefits available to them the cost of which will be picked up by the government e.g. rental, lawn mowing, medical assistance, school levies, school books and uniforms, etc. Will they have access to food bank? If all these extras are available, then perhaps the $219.20 is probably sufficient. However, where there is no work there is no dignity in society. Does anyone remember the Snowy Mountains scheme where migrants toiled for years to earn their place in Australia's work force. Australia is crying out for more roads, more rail connections - wouldn't it be better to put the refugees to work, with commensurate pay structures, and with a sunset clause on when their commitment would cease - thus giving them some dignity and able to claim a stake in Australia's progress?

pat | 26 November 2012  

I find it difficult to write objectively about recent Australian governments' (Howard's, Rudd's, Gillard's). Memories of the Fraser Government's trreatment of Vietnamese refugees (inc. boat people) keep intruding and a little voice asks insistently: What's changed? Of course there have been several big changes both within Australian society and in the countries from which refugees are fleeing. I don't want to generalise but I will. The two leading political groupings federally, ALP and L/NP,have to fight and scrape for every vote to get a majority. This strengthens the power and influence of minority parties and sectarian interest groups. The source countries are largely non-Christian with little sympathy for western values, whereas the Vietnamese refugees were either Christian or Buddhist, who prospered under French colonialism. They were mainly anti-communist. And then there are the spin-doctors. We (as represented by Australian Government/Opposition)are not stopping human beings, we are - stopping the boats, turning back the boats, preserving our borders. Or if the humanity of refugees must be mentioned, we are saving them from - people smugglers, self-destruction in leaky boats, queue-jumpers,indeterminate long spells in detention centres. The Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers couldn't say to Government/Opposition - Your politics is the problem.

Uncle Pat | 26 November 2012  

Dear Fr Mullins If the government's policy re border protection is not the right one, what would you propose in terms of policy objectives and means to achieve those objectives?

Father John Fleming | 26 November 2012  

Pat, people on government benefits are already doing lots of work in the community, helping with Landcare, reception work at art galleries and museums, "volunteering" at Vinnies and Salvation Army shops. They are saving our local councils and governments heaps of money by working in this way. No superannuation or sick leave to worry about either. Now we are planning to swell their ranks with asylum seekers?

Janet | 26 November 2012  

Father Fleming's brief comment is the most sensible statement I have seen in the years of this debate. And it applies to anyone and everyone who does no more than criticize present or past government policy and action. So, come on Michael, give us your answer - "policy objectives" and "means to achieve them". Even better still, perhaps you could also open up Eureka Street to contributions from anyone else who can do the same, i.e. propose policy and suggest means.

John R. Sabine | 26 November 2012  

Fr Fleming, I think you have been watching too much "Border Protection" and not enough real people. The government's policy of harming refugees and banning them from working is simply unchristian, heartless and insane. We as a nation need to treat people as people, and as christians we need to welcome the poor and needy. Christ would recognise the right for any person to live in peace where they wish and to live a productive life.

David Crowley | 26 November 2012  

As a partial answer to Fr.John Fleming's question I submit the following extract from a letter I had published in The Australian in November 2001:
My suggestion is that the Australian navy should be used to transport asylum-seekers from Indonesia to Australia. The advantages of this are:
1. It puts people-smugglers out of business.
2. It eliminates the risk to the lives of people who might otherwise be desperate enough to try to come here
on unseaworthy boats.
3. It puts us in Indonesia's good books.
4. It gives other countries more reason to respect us.
5. It gives us some control over who we pick up (but this should be exercised liberally) so that people don't see themselves facing years in refugee camps.
6. It does something for people like me, who would again like to be able to be proud to be Australian.

This need have no effect on the queue whose jumpers the Minister likes to talk
about. You just add the
people brought in by the navy to the quota. We're a rich country, we can afford
a bit of sacrifice. Or is that a
dirty word?

Gavan Breen | 26 November 2012  

Fr Mullins doesn't have to answer Fr Fleming's question. The federal government has a whole of government model for handling the situation where thousands of refugees risked coming to Australia by SIEVs - the model used by the Fraser government in 1980s.
The main reason the ALP government won't even look at it, and probably why the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers didn't suggest it, is because it requires political courage. It might cause the ALP to lose government but at least it would show that it had a sense of humanity and common decency - which seems to have decreasing currency in Australia at the moment - be it in banking, business, the mass media and industrial relations.

Uncle Pat | 26 November 2012  

Thank goodness the Government has finally done sufficient to attract criticism in the pages of Eureka Street away from the Jesuit educated leader of the opposition.

john frawley | 26 November 2012  

Janet, I was not suggesting that refugees volunteer for work - but that they be given the dignity of paid work in an area that will benefit Australia's crying need for infrastructure.

pat | 26 November 2012  

Monstering people to deter others damages not only the monstered but the monsterers. Moreover it no longer appears to be a disincentive. I think the government and the opposition have to have serious talks with Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries of transit. Moreover they need to confront the problems that induce people to risk their lives on leaky boats. Until they do that they will be as effective at stopping the boats as they would be at stopping a fire hose by sticking their thumb up it.

Robert Smith | 26 November 2012  

Michael, I fear your excellent article here will prove sadly prescient. Desperate people will suicide in detention - as they suicided in detention in the Howard years. The numbers will be dwarfed by numbers who have avoidably drowned on boats, but they will be serious human rights abuses nevertheless. Now, any degree of cruelty on nauru can defended by the argument put on Insiders yesterday by a govt minister Mr Tony Burke - ’People are drowning at sea. We need to make sure that we can do everything within our power to stop that’ ( AFR, 26 Nov). This does not seem to extend to trying to rescue people about whose distress at sea our authorities probably had prior intelligence-based knowledge.

tony kevin | 26 November 2012  

I am appalled by both the Government and Opposition's desire to be seen as treating asylum seekers in the worst possible way. I like Gaven's suggestions. I know it would never be politically acceptable. I would like to see some leadership in showing that Australia treat these vulnerable people with basic humanity. It is a complex and difficult issue but more efforts should be made by Government to work with Indonesian and Malaysian governments to find solutions to these problems. Thank you Michael for keeping this issue before our eyes.

Frances Pegrem | 26 November 2012  

Once more I am baffled at the apparant un- Christian attitude of many letters, where 'stopping the boats' has overtaken the awful predicament of human beings in distress. It is all about people smugglers now, not about the human lives involved. What care is there, for the terrified refugees seeking assylum in our country., Their desperation is indeed a weight upon them, as they know they risk drowning once they step into a boat. Does not that tell us of their fear and terror. Think about swopping places with these unfortunate refugees for a few minutes. What would you like Australia to do for you? It is a disgrace and a shameful thing to have Leaders and Govts. who will not pull their weight (as do other countries) in this world wide rufugee crisis. We are becoming the meanest country in the world in this respect. I am deeply ashamed of our Government and Opposition. They have no backbone or courage. A reflection by them, on the happenings in Europe in the middle of the last century may give them a jolt, though I doubt anything could rid them of their self- centred selfishness.

bernie introna | 26 November 2012  

There is no such legal thing as a no advantage test for refugees - Bowen and Gillard reckon they can illegally expel a few hundred to hell holes in the middle of nowhere and then deny them a time frame to make claims and then line up those on the mainland with a government imposed time line.

It's ridiculous and cruel and deranged to say the least.

The notion of protection seems to have been all forgotten in the rush to the bottom of the racist heap.

Marilyn | 27 November 2012  

Father Fleming, you could read the refugee convention. it is legally binding and has the laws, rights and obligations all laid out in 34 articles and it is backed up by the protocol of 1967, the convenant on civil and political rights and so on.

Marilyn | 27 November 2012  

For Father John Fleming, elements of policy on asylum seekers must include:

1. Active recognition of their right to seek asylum in Australia
2. Active implementation of UN Convention on Refugees, to which Australia is a signatory
3. Active recognition of the human rights of asylum seekers to be treated with dignity, to be processed rapidly on arrival for release into the community no matter how they arrive
4. Granting of protection visas which allow refugees to work, receive education and necessary social & medical support to enable them to find their place in Australian society
5. Preferential taking of refugees directly from Indonesia & Malaysia to reduce the pressures of prolonged internment which, by its hopelessness, induces people to risk their lives in boats

These values-based elements of policy reflect Australia as a nation which lives its recognition of human rights and implements the international conventions and agreements which it ratifies.

These policy elements provide an effective regional solution by taking refugees from the two major regional countries of first refuge.

Current policies in place to 'stop the boats' don't work. Increasing the volume of approvals for safe entry directly from Indonesia & Malaysia is worth trying.

Ian Fraser | 27 November 2012  

I propose that we hire an ocean liner that can take up to 1000 people. We go to the various islands around Indonesia, Malaysia or wherever and pick up everyone that wants to claim asylum in Australia. We then bring them back to the Australain mainland and hand them over to the authorities for the processing of their claims. We then pick up another liner full and repeat the process indefinitely. I propose this course of action because there are some posters here who would have no consistently logical reason to object to it. These people rightly say that we should help people who seek asylum. But the means by which they get here and in what numbers is immaterial. Their desperation and their claims for asylum are per se justification for arriving. These people will always take the luxury of the moral high ground. They do not look seriously at the issue that Australia cannot cope, econmoically and socially, with all the people who would have a legitimate claim for asylum. Those who miss out will suffer, but it will NOT be our fault because we are selfish and racist. We can only do so much. We need to talk about how much this actually is and how we work it out.

MJ | 27 November 2012  

And now the cowards have excised the mainland in the hope that refugees won't get here by boat. Not one other nation in the world is so deranged and deluded as ours.

Marilyn | 27 November 2012  

Australia has the Worlds highest rate of immigration supported by all our political, media and business elites, and opposed by the majority of the population. Asylum seeker bashing allows our politicians to pretend to be anti-immigration, and to avoid any real debate over our high rate of immigration. This ensures that the will of the majority never prevails.

If our politicians really wanted to stop asylum seekers drowning, as Clive Palmer asked, "Why not let them fly in?" If we want to deter them from coming then don't give them permanent residency, free healthcare, free education, social security, and Public or subsidized housing. Just give them asylum, let them work, pay their own way, and pay taxes. send them home when it is safe to return. Then their will be no incentive for them to come to Australia over any other country that is a signatory to the refugee convention.

Jerzy | 06 December 2012  

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