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Getting the balance right on border protection

  • 02 November 2009
One of the key issues in the debate about asylum seekers is the balance between sovereignty and human rights. This question is not about whether asylum seekers should be allowed to make claims, but about what restrictions should be made on those who arrive without a visa, and whether boats should be interdicted and applications processed outside Australian jurisdiction. The issues are clear for advocates, but for politicians it is harder to find the balance.

Kevin Rudd talks of being 'tough on border protection' and 'humane for asylum seekers'. The Opposition calls any boat arriving a 'failure in policy' without stating what they would do differently. The Howard Government policy was temporary protection visas (TPV), excision, interdiction and processing in Nauru and PNG for those arriving by boat. Despite hints at returning to some of this, the Opposition is struggling to present a serious policy alternative.

The TPVs were shown to have serious harsh effects such as forced separation from spouse and children for years at a time, without the option of even visiting them in a third country and subsequently returning to Australia. This went against not only the UNHCR's policy of family reunion, but also the ICCPR and Convention on the Rights of the Child. Processing in Nauru was done outside the Migration Act, and the processing times were very long.

Some reforms were made of the old system by the Howard Government. These started in 2004 and 2005 after other serious flaws in the Migration portfolio were highlighted by the detention of Cornelia Rau and the forced removal of Australian citizens like Vivian Alvarez. Later the Ombudsman reported on over 200 cases of unlawful detention, some of Australian citizens. The 'tough' policy had clearly gone too far.

Processing of protection cases was sped up to 90 days, unless applicants were waiting for security checks. This did not apply to those 'excised cases', but did speed up a process that had for too long been bogged down.

The abolition of the TPV was necessary as it caused serious trauma for those caught up in it. Some waited seven or more years to get their permanent residence. The cruel policy of the separation of families under TPVs probably caused significantly more women and children to arrive in boats in 2001.To put your family at risk