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Don't stoop to stupid policy over boat tragedy


Almost a year to the day when a boat sank off Christmas Island with horrendous loss of life, yet another asylum seeker tragedy, with an even higher death toll, has occurred. Up to 150 people bound for Australia may have died in the seas off East Java on Saturday.

The familiar refrains of 'Stop the boats', or more elegant variations thereof, inevitably followed.

The Coalition's policy of towing boats back to Indonesia is both immoral and stupid. It puts the lives of asylum seekers at further risk and undermines the professionalism and morale of the Australian Navy. The other oft-bruited policy, off-shore processing, strikes at the heart of the asylum system.

People have a right to seek asylum, and Australia is a signatory to the Refugee Convention which clearly states that those who seek asylum and arrive in a country's territory by irregular means should not be penalised. Let us be clear: off-shore processing puts Australia in breach of its international obligations, and makes laughable the claim that Australia is a nation of laws.

Of course we want people to stop making the hazardous boat journey to Christmas Island, but tow-backs and off-shore processing are blunt instruments that avoid the complexity of the issue.

Asylum seekers who attempt the boat journey to Australia often make their way to Indonesia via Malaysia, or arrive in Indonesia directly from their countries of origin before making the decision to get on a boat. Many try to get their refugee status determined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices in these countries, but the process is long drawn-out, seen to lack transparency, and has no independent review mechanism.

UNHCR is also in a bind: even if it recognises the refugee status of asylum seekers, there are not enough resettlement places for these refugees to take up. While they languish in Malaysia or Indonesia, they are unable to work legally, cannot get an education, face harassment from the authorities, and are readily exploited by unscrupulous employers who know they have few protections.

Senator Doug Cameron's cogent and insightful statement in reaction to Saturday's tragedy bears repeating:

It doesn't matter what deterrent you put in place, if they are fleeing for their lives, if they don't have a future in the country they're in, then they will take these chances. You can't place enough impediments in the way of asylum seekers who are fleeing death or torture.

This is a regional problem and requires a regional solution. Australia must engage with the countries through which pass the flows of irregular migrants, explore with them ways to increase the protection space for asylum seekers and refugees in their territories, and share in the cost, so that people are not driven by poor living conditions and lack of legal protection to make desperate journeys.

It should also engage in serious research to find out why people make onward journeys from the countries of first asylum such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

On a recent visit to Indonesia, I met many asylum seekers and refugees. For them, coming to Australia was not always an inevitability, but a solution to a problem that seemed to have no other solutions: where can they be safe, and lead normal lives?

For a young man of 16, waiting two to three years in Indonesia for the refugee status determination and resettlement process to play itself out seems like a lifetime, especially when you cannot get an education and have no other meaningful activities while you wait. Getting on a boat seems like the better option, and the young cannot weigh the risks because they feel they are indestructible.

Many have now learnt, to their cost, that this is not the case. 

Aloysious MoweAloysious Mowe is Director of Jesuit Refugee Service.

Topic tags: Aloysious Mowe, off-shore processing, asylum seekers, christmas island



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Existing comments

unfortunately these are not always people waiting in Indonesia. They are now paying for journeys from far away and targeting australia. That doesn't mean they are not in need, but we are opening a pathway that is extremely alluring and dangerous. Even if people are not found to be refugees, they know that if they can get to Australia our government will be unable to return them. A man who was on the boat that sank has said today that he wants the borders closed. I think we need to do more than talk about long term solutions and the ideal scenario - that is a long way off if ever it comes. Meanwhile we do have an immediate obligation to people who will take children on those journeys in desperation, we do bear some responsibility for ensuring they don't die. The debate is so polarised and some compromise of ideals in the short term to explore some still humane but imperfect policies may be necessary. Ideology is fine but how many more will die in the coming weeks if nothing changes. It is up to us and other countries in the region to ensure some safe options for people and stop them from risking their lives. It is a nasty death out on the ocean and just imagine the reality of how those people died. We can find other ways but it will take some flexibility on both sides. and how can it be morally acceptable for smugglers to be making millions of dollars to send people to their death?

Peotara | 19 December 2011  

Nobody blames anybody for trying and it would be stupidity not trying to move away from some areas in the world if you had the opportunity and the money to do so. What is totally unacceptable is to promote the dangerous sea route as an alternative to come to Australia and in the process let people die. Supporting people smuggling, if it is done for profit or to to give somebody a warm and fuzzy feeling of goodness, will cause more death and misery. . It is time the that the Russian Roulette played by people smugglers and their supporters is stopped. They play with the lives of desperate people and their children.

Beat Odermatt | 19 December 2011  

Actually it's not regional because the refugees are not from the region really. And regional simply means we do nothing. We have this system set up in Indonesia which is paying for illegal imprisonment and deportation. Metcalfe outlined it last year and no-one cares to report the facts. Mr Metcalfe—People smugglers or people being smuggled? Senator HANSON-YOUNG—People smugglers. Mr Metcalfe—It would not be my expectation that it would be targeted at people smugglers." and Mr Hughes—Accommodation and detention arrangements for people intercepted by the Indonesian police and immigration. It is enhancing Indonesia’s capacity to undertake returns of people found not to require international protection and assisting the Indonesian authorities in improving their immigration system." And it is all illegal and it is what drives people out of Indonesia and it is what Bowen wants to do in Malaysia. An appalling coroners report into deaths in custody here sure dried up the crocodile tears fast though as they tried to defend killing innocent people in illegal prisons. Of course if we simply stopped locking up innocent people they would not kill themselves.

Marilyn Shepherd | 19 December 2011  

Beat, it is not about people smuggling, no-one is being smuggled into Australia because it is their legal right to come to Australia.

Marilyn Shepherd | 19 December 2011  

Australia would do well to resource the UNHCR to assess and directly resettle people, rather than resourcing the private contractors who currently turn a profit running our mandatory detention industry, otherwise known as our "mental illness factory". This might restore a modicum of morality.

Michelle Goldsmith | 20 December 2011  

This morning I read in The First Letter from Peter: "To God's chosen people who live as refugees scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithunia." 1 Peter 1.1. Refugees are not a modern phenomenon. And despite Christianity helping civilise Europe, people continually had to seek refuge outside their own country to avoid persecution, bigotry or discrimination. Ask the Huguenots, Irish nationalists, anti-communist Vietnamese. Politics and/or economics decided where they could find refuge. I agree with Senator Cameron's cogent summary of the desperation that drives people to flee their own country. Neither borders nor oceans will stop them fleeing a life worse than death. Refugees are an international phenomenon. We in Australia are experiencing a small part of it. Of course what to do about them is a regional problem requiring a regional solution but more importantly it is an internal problem requiring an internal solution. And as long as politics and/or economics determine what the internal solution will be, I doubt if Fr Mowe's suggestions will given even scant attention - fundamentally important though they be.

Uncle Pat | 20 December 2011  

I live in Kabul, Afghanistan, and have done so for a while. I know, therefore, fairly well what Afghan asylum seekers are fleeing from. Sometimes I just sit and imagine how it would be if Australia (or more correctly, Australian policiticians) stopped "politicising" and demonising asylum seekers and decided to become world leaders in their assessment and treatment (and not offshore as Cardinal Pell as suggested). Imagine if Australia volutarily setting up one of the world's major asylum seeker centres and actually did something about the situation which as the author and various commens have described as a world wide and regionsl problem. Imagine working with UNHCR, IOM, various governments, countries of origin and countries of first arrival, etc., to produce an humane and orgnised process of working with a problem which is not about to go away. Imagine inviting them to Australia rather than towing them back to somewhere else? Unreal? Maybe.

Anthony Patrick | 20 December 2011  

Not when the ABC and others continue to claim that off shore processing can be revived if only the parties would agree. It cannot be made legal under any circumstances so I don't know why they continue to whine and whinge that it can be. To make it legal we have to white the high court out of the law and that requires a referendum to declare the country a two legged dictatorship.

Marilyn Shepherd | 20 December 2011  

At last, someone is looking at the wider picture. I would very much like Eureka Street to begin to concentrate on the slowness of process for those seeking asylum and waiting patiently overseas for the legal administrative wheels to turn. In central Victoria there is an extended family of Karin Burmese who arrived legally in Australia after fleeing Burma to a Thai refugee camp when the senior woman's husband, a resistance fighter, was killed in Burma's forests. They waited years in the camps before being relocated. In these circumstances it is understandable that desperate people should take to boats. Can Eureka Street begin a push for speedy legal process?

Anna Summerfield | 21 December 2011  

Anna, that is nice dear but the reality is your Karen family have zero legal right to migrate here beyond anyone else. It is asylum seekers here who have the right to our protection and whether or not Karen are in camps in other countries is nothing to do with us.

Marilyn Shepherd | 21 December 2011  

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