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A tale of two refugee movement speeches


Tony Abbott's address to the Institute of Public Affairs on Friday — 'The Coalition's Plan for more secure borders' — restates the well known mantra 'stop the boats'. Its simplistic announcements do not consider the serious human rights issues, nor add much to discussion in this complex area.

Abbott's solution has one potentially good idea, of increasing the program to 15,000 with some community sponsorship of refugees. The old Community Refugee Support Scheme (CRSS) of the 1980s and early 1990s was a good way of encouraging community involvement in refugee resettlement.

The speech's bad ideas include reinstating temporary protection visas (TPV), reopening Nauru, forcing back the boats where possible, and denying refugee status to those 'transiting through Indonesia who lack identity papers'. Each point needs to be considered in turn.

There is no evidence that the TPV deterred anyone. In fact, what it did was cause major stress for refugees because of enforced family separation, and made the only option for family reunion for women and children to board boats — which is what happened in 2000 and 2001.

The psychological harm was documented by mental health professionals at the time. Administratively, it caused a major backlog of cases in both Immigration and then the Refugee Review Tribunal. In the end most people on TPVs were granted permanent residence, anyway. The TPV was flawed and in my view cruel.

Nauru was also never a 'solution', but a warehousing of refugees, many of whom were later resettled in Australia because they could not be sent anywhere else. It was different to the camps established under the Comprehensive Plan of Action for the mainly Vietnamese refugees in the 1980s; under that system, there was international agreement about resettlement of cases.

Who is going to sign up to a Nauru deal for an issue which is considered 'Australia's problem'?

Turning back the boats is also highly risky because the boats could be scuttled thus endangering the lives of the refugees and naval personnel. 

The final idea is even more worrying — a presumption against refugee status for boat arrivals transiting through Indonesia who lack identity papers. What will be needed to rebut such a presumption and what protections will there be to ensure there is no refoulement of a refugee?

The Refugee Convention provides in article 31 that a receiving country cannot impose penalties on people arriving without lawful authority. A presumption against refugee status because you do not have documents is an even more serious breach of the Convention.

Abbott criticises Labor for being 'more compassionate' but he need not worry about the same allegation being made against him. There are problems with the current system from a human rights and human dignity perspective, and certainly the Malaysian idea would be a major step away from these principles. However, there is little in the Opposition's policy that is better. 

In fact, the term 'human rights' does not appear anywhere in Abbott's 3000 word speech. 'Illegal' appears 11 times and 'asylum' once. The failure to even acknowledge that human rights are relevant is disturbing but not surprising. The Government's own rhetoric continues to push for the flawed Malaysia solution, but this seems even less likely given the numbers it controls in the House.

In February this year, Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, gave a 3000 word speech to the Lowy Institute. He counselled against populist approaches to solving refugee movements and encouraged Governments to look at regional, not national solutions. A search of that speech found 'human rights' five times, 'asylum' 21 times and no use of 'illegal'.

The tone and style of both speeches are quite different but sadly for the refugees, the speech that will affect them is that which talks more about 'illegals' than asylum and human rights.

Kerry MurphyKerry Murphy is a partner with the specialist immigration law firm D'Ambra Murphy Lawyers. He is a student of Arabic, former Jesuit Refugee Service coordinator, teaches at ANU and was recognised by AFR best lawyers survey as one of Australia's top immigration lawyers. 


Topic tags: Kerry Murphy, refugees, asylum seekers, Antonio Guterres, Malaysia solution, stop the boats



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Existing comments

Abbott is appealing to the bigots in the Coalition and the Australian community, like the ALP does too, so why would he use language that recognised the responsibilities Australia signed up to as a nation? It makes me wonder though, just how wafer-thin Abbott's veneer of religiosity actually is, and calls into question his mentor, Cardinal Pell, who clearly has wasted his time with Abbott - or maybe he has helped Abbott develop this 'Christian' outlook? Either way, why bother raising this as an issue that is just so painfully obvious? Unless, since this journal is really just an apologist rag for Christianity of a pro-Roman Catholic flavour, there is also some forensic examination of the role of all the RC church leaders in this disgraceful episode of Australian history? I doubt it though, just as there is no examination of the complicity of the Church in poverty creation, homelessness and greedy profit taking, beyond a few empty phrases now and again and some empty rhetoric from an angtsr ridden soul every now and then. Let us hear Cardinal Pell booming out about Abbott's unChristian attitudes and behaviours shall we? We all know that will never happen. Just as we all know priests will continue to abuse children and Bishops will continue to support it happening with their silence and their re-posting of the offenders.

Andy Fitzharry | 01 May 2012  

That's politics, Kerry. At least politics in a society which survives on the old Roman Empire slogan for keeping the masses occupied with "Bread and Circuses". Abbott has learned well at the feet of John Howard. No matter what the question is, just keep repeating the slogan, or the catch-cry. "Stop The Boats" is worthy of a Roman admiral rallying his oarsmen against the Egyptians.

Uncle Pat | 01 May 2012  

Thanks, Kerry, very telling counter-point. The depressing issue is that the stumbles and bumbling nature of the present Government is blocking out any prospect of debate on substantive policy issues and the Catholic Church is caught up in a two-centuries ago nostalgia kick that has effectively side-lined it. So, why worry, let's all rush to the cliff! It will be too late when reality dawns.

Gerard Walsh | 01 May 2012  

I had a recent post that made negative comments about Bob Brown blocked. Nowhere in it did I accuse him committing or being complicit in the heinous goings-on of which Andy Fitzharry says the Catholic Church is guilty. It was not the first time that some of my mildly disparaging remarks against a figure of the left had been excluded, whilst bile poured forth against conservative figures, both lay anad clerical, had been posted. I judge Andy Fitzharry's post to be just such an example. I find it hard not to conclude that a double standard, conscious or unconscious, operates amongst Eureka Streets' moderators.

John Ryan | 01 May 2012  

Dear Mr Murphy, I find this whole business of refugees most difficult to understand as I am sure many readers do. Can you please explain how it is that people manage to get into Indonesia as refugees presumably (as when they eventually arrive here)without papers or passports. How have they managed to avoid the processes that the vast majority of other refugees seem to rely on for processing and from which post-processing pool Australia takes its allocated international quota of refugees? Since the Indonesian parliament passed legislation in April 2011 making people smuggling illegal in Indonesia, how can it be that there are boats operated by people smugglers leaving those waters? Perhaps the President has not approved the legislation as yet? And how on Earth does the number of times a person mentions a particular word in a statement bear any validity at all to the statement? Yesterday this journal's editorial decried editorial bias. Unhappily, there appears to be a certain blindness to bias in one's own house! Or perhaps this morning's coffee came from the same water supply that Andy Fitz used?

john frawley | 01 May 2012  

I totally agree with Andy Fitzharry. The Catholic Church are hypocrites and are not to be trusted. The clergy continue to ruin the lives of vulnerable children through the rampant paedophilia in the ranks of the clergy. Abbott's lake of car for the weak and the needy makes a mockery of his Christianity.

Michael Jones | 01 May 2012  

JOHN FRAWLEY, let me make it simple for you to understand - Do you realise that the Jews who fled Nazi Germany also did so illegally without the valid papers/passports required by the German government? Do you also realise the first Europeans who arrived in Australia did so without permission from Aboriginal elders who were the authorities at the time?

AURELIUS | 01 May 2012  

It should be acknowledged that the only political entity in this country actually standing up for asylum seekers by repeatedly reminding us of Australia's (OUR) international and moral obligations as signatory to the UN Convention On Refugees are the Australian Greens. It is unspeakably appalling that Abbott and his ilk continue to get away with vilifying those we are obliged to assist with the nastily misleading and downright incorrect characterisation of them as "illegals". Please people, lest we forget the dishonesty, the immorality, the prurient political expediency of both Howard's Coalition and Beazley's ALP in 2001 - the shameful Tampa fiasco. Minority government is all that is preventing the complete abandonment of human rights, where asylum seekers are concerned, by our elected leaders. If you are dismayed by our continual abuse of the world's most vulnerable and desperate who come to us for succour, you need to be voting for the Australian Greens.

Michelle Goldsmith | 01 May 2012  

Anyone claiming to be a Christian should bear two things in mind. 1. Jesus started life on earth as a refugee, fleeing with his family to a distant country. 2. He promised that he would take as done to himself whatever was done to others in a similar position.

Robert Liddy | 01 May 2012  

DEAR AURELIUS. Didn't help me, I'm afraid. Clearly, I am very thick. I simply don't understand how our refugees from the Indonesian mainland get to Indonesia without passports or papers. I suppose they come all the way across vast oceans by unworthy leaky boats. Why don't they simply by-pass Indonesia?

john frawley | 01 May 2012  

The people smuggling industry is worried that effective border protection would reduce their lucrative income. We have people directly involved in organising the dangerous boat journeys to Australia. These people take the highest risk as they can end up in jail. We have other people hiding behind the innocent looking cover of charities, churches and businesses. These people often take a large slice of the 6 Billion Dollar human trade. These people do not end up in jail, but have the audacity to criticise anybody trying to prevent more people dying in dangerous boats in treacherous waters. If our Government and the coalition would stop acting like little children in sandpit and agree on an effective means to stop the trade in human misery, the people smuggling industry could be stopped.

Beat Odermatt | 01 May 2012  

JOHN FRAWLEY, you are not thick, you are just not in a position to understand how someone can be so desperate to get themselves and their families out of a desperate situation. Why not visit a country where life isn't at ordered and privileged as Australia and maybe you will realise that the refugee "queue" which you think seems to exist, is not delineated by a white picket fence.

AURELIUS | 01 May 2012  

And half of the problem is our pathetic media who feel the need to report the arrival of some refugees as if it is a news story. Each and every day over 11,500 people seek refuge from persecution or war, on average 17 of them arrive here by sea yet the media prattle as if the tiny number is worth reporting. We see today that Bowen is congratulating Sri Lanka for "stopping people smuggling", but no "Sri Lankans or anyone else have been smuggled to Australia because giving refugees transport has never had anything to do with people smuggling. And because our media refuse to report that simple fact Indonesian kids and refugee kids are jailed without charge or trial for years on end. The media don't seen to understand that the "authority" to arrive is the refugee convention and that is legally binding. .

Marilyn | 01 May 2012  

Because John Frawley the majority of refugees in the world do not rely on the UNHCR process, the majority rely on the process applied in signatory states and it has always been that way. Indonesia is not a signatory state, is not required and will not look after refugees and we have always known that. In "February this year they forcibly deported Iranians without letting them apply to the UNHCR, in March they beat an Afghan man to death in one of our funded refugee prisons and tortured others. Now as we have applicants from Peru, Brazil, Jordan, Egpyt and all other corners of the world without mentioning them why do we need to demonise only those who cannot get papers and come by sea? It is legal to come by sea. Always has been. And the law is that everyone has the right to seek asylum without fear of punishment or further persecution. We helped write the convention and treat it like a disposable shitty nappy.

Marilyn | 01 May 2012  

I find the attitude of JOHN FRAWLEY to be similar to that of the lowest common denominator politicians who no longer even believe their own rhetoric. They know the issues full well but insist on employing legalistic tactics to stifle any intelligent, moral conversation so that others in the debate seem compelled to waste their energy rehashing the same old issues.

AURELIUS | 02 May 2012  

MARILY AND AURELIUS, Thank you for giving your time to sorting out my understanding of this difficult issue. Marilyn, I find the first two sentences of your post above have confused me further - they are contradictory it seems to me. I know that I can travel anywhere I like by sea quite legally, but when I finally disembark in any foreign port without a passport I

john frawley | 02 May 2012  

With due respect to all who have commented on Kerry's, and I include myself, we are a manifestation of what happens when a basic human rights issue becomes a political football. What has made the refugee or asylum seeker issue more serious is that the game is being played on the edge of a cliff. I'm indebted to Gerard Walsh for the image of the cliff edge. The lack of moral leadership from the major political parties and the eroded clerical leadership of the Catholic church is enough to drive one over the edge - not to despair but to voting for The Greens, despite some of the misguided policies in their Eco-topian platform.

Uncle Pat | 02 May 2012  

continuation of today's post--hit the wrong button --old age, no doubt!!!! Iknow that I can travel anywhere by sea quite legally but when I disembark in any foreign port I will not be allowed to stay and will be immediately deported as "illegal" if I do not have a passport. I think the fact that we make any effort to address this problem of refugees and debate it to the extent that we do in this country is praiseworthy. We can't "please all of the people all of the time" and never will. Vested interests will always be displeased no matter what the government does, particularly if the action taken removes the essence of what that interest might be,(Note the mining debate at the moment). However, I will continue to try to understand!!

john frawley | 02 May 2012  

John Frawley is correct when he says that if he arrives by ship in a foreign and attempts to land without a passport, he will be deported, but this will NOT happen if he is a refugee. As for people smuggling, during WW2, Swedish diplomat in Budapest Raoul Wallenberg, and also Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Consul in Lithuania, were people smugglers too. Wallenberg lost his life, and Sugihara lost his career.

Of course, they did not charge for their services, but in the final analysis, they used legal fictions to send people to welcoming destinations, and now we see them as heroes.

Peter Downie | 02 May 2012  

JOhn under article 31 of the refugee convention it is not illegal to enter any country without a passport provided you apply to the authorities for refugee protection as soon as possible.

In places like Indonesia there is no mechanism or law that allows anyone to apply for the protection of the state so they have to leave.

Why don't you read the DIAC and UNHCR websites?

Marilyn | 02 May 2012  

John Frawley you are slowly getting the point - the next requirement you would need to be regarded as a refugee, is to have a well-founded reason to flee for your life ie.... danger, persecution. I'm guessing you don't.

AURELIUS | 02 May 2012  

AURELIUS, Strewth! You are right. I do not currently have a reason to flee in fear for my life. However,it seems to me that if I continue in this debate, I might well acquire one!! I will, therefore, desist, thankfully enriched by your comments and those of Marilyn and Peter. I will have a look at the websites you suggest, Marilyn.

john frawley | 03 May 2012  

My understanding of the legal status of asylum seekers is that they are not illegal entrants if they are genuine refugees, since, if they are refugees within the definition of that term in the Refugee Convention, (to which Australia is a party), they have a right to seek asylum in any participating country. If that is correct, Australia cannot lawfully refuse entry to them under the convention.

Tony Santospirito | 05 May 2012  

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