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Australia's bad job of asylum seeker policy


Three recent developments in Australian treatment of asylum seekers are best studied for their symbolic value. They communicate clearly a dispiriting reality that underlies them.

The situation of asylum seekers on Nauru is a symbol of shambolic policy making. The proposed excision of the Australian mainland is a symbol of ethical jobbery. And the repatriation of asylum seekers without informing them of their rights to claim asylum is a symbol of despair.

You can tell bad policy making by the trail of broken human lives it leaves behind it. Bad policy made on the run almost always disturbs and damages human lives. The image of asylum seekers held in tents in the heat of Nauru, many on hunger strike and at least one now in risk of death, will surely be followed by images of people withering from depression and resentment and needing medical care to heal what has been wantonly broken.

The policy goal is to stop the boats, or to put it more kindly, to discourage people from coming by boat. The asylum seekers have been placed on Nauru before proper preparations can be made in order to ensure that they gain from coming by boat no advantage over other asylum seekers left in Indonesia. Their lack of advantage will encourage others not to make the boat trip.

The Government has yet to announce the precise exchange rate between the currencies of misery and lack of advantage.

So Nauru and Manus Island will hold people who were not stopped by the policy from coming by boat. If the policy actually increases the number of people arriving by boat, as it may, it will have achieved precisely the opposite to what it intended, at great cost to people and in resources.

This is not to mention the further details of the policy yet to be devised: the adjudication of their claims, any review there may be, and what will become of those found to be refugees. One may assume that these processes will be designed to ensure that the asylum seekers have no recourse to Australian law. Both people and the process itself will sink into a morass of arbitrariness. This is not the mark of good policy.

The excision of Australian mainland from the immigration zone simply extends legislation already in place. It is conceptually clever, displaying the same intelligence as the slicing and bundling of financial derivatives that gave us the Great Financial Crisis. There it allowed banks to make money without actually breaking the law.

The excision of Australia from the immigration zone enables Australia to renege on its commitment to offer asylum to those facing persecution by redefining Australia. The use of mind displayed in this game turns trust and justice into dust. This comes from the policy manual composed by spivs and mainchancers.

The repatriation of Sri Lankans without explaining to them their rights as asylum seekers is a symbol of despair in policy making. It is an exercise in naked power.

At the heart of good policy is the use of mind, of discriminating justly between those who should benefit from the policy and those who are not entitled to do so. Australia’s subscription to the UNHCR Convention on the Status of Refugees commits Australia to offer protection to refugees who flee from persecution. Refugee policy decides which claimants are fleeing from persecution and how protection can be given them speedily and efficaciously.

To deport potential refugees without allowing them to make a claim is not an exercise of rational policy making but a confession of hope abandoned of ever acting reasonably and rightly. Power is all.

The heart of these three changes to Australia's treatment of refugees lies in an excision: not the fictive excision of migration rights from Australian territory, but the excision of mind and heart from the Australian body politic.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Nauru, hunger strikes, excision, asylum seekers, Sri Lanka



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Existing comments

Thank you for stating it so clearly. A shameful state of affairs.

sara dowse | 15 November 2012  

Thank you for continuing to speak strongly for the rights of vulnerable people who are being downtrodden in our name, as Australians. If we don't seek justice for the vulnerable and stand against what is unjust, we share the injustice.

jan tranter | 15 November 2012  

Yes, I agree with that last phrase "excision of mind and heart from the Australian body politic". We have a siege mentality about asylum seekers in this country and it is a great shame on our government, and people, that we are prepared to inflict misery, and degradation, on those who are vulnerable - the very people who need acceptance. On my Leunig calendar for November are a man and his son on the seashore. The father says, "So what do you hear in the seashell?". Son replies, "I hear the sea level rising, I hear blue fin tuna being hunted, I hear boat people crying, I hear villages being swept away....I want my i-pod back".

Pam | 15 November 2012  

Well said, well written. The key section for me is "The excision of Australian mainland from the immigration zone simply extends legislation already in place. It is conceptually clever, displaying the same intelligence as the slicing and bundling of financial derivatives that gave us the Great Financial Crisis."

Jennifer Herrick | 15 November 2012  

Thanks for challenging this grave injustice being done in our name.

In my view, Australia lost its way when its politicians and officials failed to fully recognise that asylum seeking, in the context of its international legal obligations ( 1951 UN Refugee Convention), is separate from its national migration policy and framework which exists to “nation build”, and recruit immigrants in the national interest.
This year the Migration Program is projected to be 210 000 people/visas of which 20 000 are "humanitarian visas". The Humanitarian Program was designed as a migration sub program of selected refugees from "over there"- the chosen few from the UNHCR pools of mandated refugees requiring priority resettlement. Each year UNHCR identifies between 60 000 and 100 000 refugees for resettlement. Up take varies with economic circumstances in resettlement countries . Australia chose 6 000 until the recent program increase, an increase specifically to accommodate the proven refugees who came in a disorderly fashion, by boat and asked for our protection- and their claims were well founded.
We maintain the concept that selected refugees chosen from UNHCR pools of refugees are the “good” refugees, who wait in a non existing queue. These are the “refugee migrants” resettled with the best resettlement services in the world- a record we can be proud of.
The increase to 12 000 refugee places this year – a defacto bipartisan agreement - is recognition that most boatpeople when processed, meet the same refugee convention criteria as the UNHCR pool refugees in Africa, Malaysia ,Middle East. The concept of asylum seekers as “bad” refugees, who select themselves instead of being selected by us, should therefore wane in the public perception. Will it?
The humanitarian tragedy is that the humanitarian visa quota ( now 8 000 places pa ) is enormously oversubscribed, and wives and children wait for years to be reunited with husbands/father who came alone because it was so dangerous, so costly. This is an Immigration queue- applications for family reunion – and it was estimated to be between 5 and 7 years of waiting before the increased quota was announced . What is the estimate wait now?
The frightful prediction is that from here on, families who need to flee persecution will do so as a family. More potential loss of lives at sea of women, children and men. And there is no question that the situation for Afghan asylum seekers/refugees residing in both Iran and Pakistan are being squeezed, and going back to a Taliban dominated Afghanistan is a death trap for Hazara.
“Turn back the boats” was always “stop these uninvited people coming in a disorderly fashion”. Asylum seekers challenge the set quotas in a migration program. By its very nature, escaping persecution is a messy, often spontaneous and dangerous matter and while this is recognised in the UN Refugees Convention, Australian politicians and their advisors are offended by this challenge to their control. They want to select who comes to Australia. You can see that the migration framework is not a good fit for asylum seekers. Asylum claims should be managed outside this migration framework.
A current conspiracy theory is that because asylum seekers are foreigners, often Muslims and have no voice, no complaints mechanism, they are expendable , and caving in to Abbott’s relentless badgering “pick up the phone” and “stop the boats”, Gillard and Co have called their bluff in order to prove that the advice they were given by the then Secretary of Immigration was well founded. Andrew Metcalfe told the Senate Cttee that Nauru a second time would not work, for sundry reasons. The information was well and truly “in”, after the unmitigated disaster last time which was why the Pacific non Solution was disbanded in 2008.

We are seeing some of the reasons emerge, through the voices and images sent via facebook, and through the compassionate Salvos telling the truth about conditions they have experienced and the persecution claims heard from the 400 men now held in detention on Nauru. These 400 are not nearly as “out of sight, out of mind” as the 1 500 who passed through Nauru 2001-2008.
The bottom line for us is that the signature Bob Menzies, Prime Minister, put on the UN Refugee Convention in 1954 for ALL Australians is legally binding, and we should protect those who cross our borders claiming persecution, assess their claims and treat them with human dignity. Other civilised nations do this.
About 11 000 Syrians fled into neighbouring countries on one day last weekend. We have made a mountain out of a mole hill, with our average of less than 6 000 asylum seekers coming by boat ( not plane) in the five years of a Labor Government. Just count the $ billions, and ask what for? Bad job? Scandalous! Incompetent governance.

Frederika Steen | 15 November 2012  

Andrew if this article was on the front page of newspapers with some pictures there would be much sadness in the community. Problem is we have this out of sight, out of mind mentality. A concerted media effort to expose the plight of refugees on Nauru is needed and much lobbying in order to change the way things are being done. This is such a young country with a short history of government, perhaps the emotional intelligence of our politicians is not yet mature enough to deal with large numbers of refugees, perhaps it’s easier to keep them off shore and out of sight. A compassionate government with mature intelligence would allow them on the mainland and let those people who can work into society with a temporary protection visa. Perhaps women and children can be integrated with host families.

Trish Martin | 15 November 2012  

Well put. The 'no advantage' argument is proving to be no deterrent either to those fleeing persecution or those simply desperate for a better life.

Robert Smith | 15 November 2012  

How do we Australians who are ashamed of our Govt's scandalous policy on refugees do something practical, apart from writing into Eureka St. Can we organise a massive public demonstration, informing the Govt. enough is enough! We will not stand for this blatant injustice towards those already vulnerable and hurting. We have voting power... the Govt. needs to hear from us. Our success lies in our numbers, getting together to make a stance. Evil happens when good people do nothing ! How can we bring a huge demonstration to fruition, to show how much we are ashamed of our Government's policies. Any ideas?

Bernie Introna | 15 November 2012  

Thank-you Andy. Once again you have stated so clearly the grave injustice that these people are suffering. Where has our compassion gone?

anne | 16 November 2012  

I am a refugee who came after 13th of August to Australia..we suffered a lot in our home country and escaped to Australia with the hope of protection..i respect the Australian law and i am not saying that this country should give us visas in the very first moment that we arrived..but it is not fair to send us to a pacific tiny island and keep us there for may be five years..now our future is uncertain and living without knowing anything about what will happen tommorow is kind of torture.

ANDREW with this article touched my heart and it was the first time that i hear or read something and i feel it is talking on bahalf of refugees..at least there is some one in AUSTRALIA who knows what is happening for us and feel sympathy for us..excuse me if my English was not very good..thank u.

H | 16 November 2012  

I work daily with new asylum seekers and totally endorse the views that those with truthful claims and no other pathway to protection should be given an opportunity to access some of Australia’s intake positions. These people should be embraced and assured of fairness.

The motivation to do the latter is, sadly, diluted by the mix of people who present on boats as persecuted. Some believe they have claims, coming from genuine suffering, but will not qualify legally, so no malice to them, just an observation that it is extremely expensive legal advice they wind up getting when sent back to source.

Others, who really are to blame for diluting our reception welcome are the number who know very well that they do not have legitimate claims, but because they can bribe officials, employ criminal smugglers, destroy evidence of identity and break maritime laws come as imposters, some of them smugglers impersonating the persecuted. Some exploit their government’s refusal to accept failed asylum seekers back if not returned voluntarily. These ones may be assessed as qualified, despite considerable doubt, thereby displacing many about whom there is no doubt of persecution. Why are you not outraged by such a crime against humanity?

What do you say when the latter obtain permanent residency, and then cackle to themselves as they return here from holidays in the country from which they recently ‘fled’? Are you deliberately ignorant of these cases, or do I have insider information?

Lucky Immigrant | 18 November 2012  

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