Improving the refugee debate


A New Approach, CPD reportThis week's 10th anniversary of the Tampa incident sees a number of related issues converge.

Firstly, the High Court is considering a legal challenge to the declaration of Malaysia as a safe place to send asylum seekers, and whether the Minister as guardian of the unaccompanied minors should be party to such an arrangement. The judgment will be highly significant for the 'Malaysian solution'.

Secondly, there is an inquiry to examine suicide and self-harm in immigration detention. In 2010–2011 alone there were more than 1100 reported incidents of self-harm or threatened self-harm in immigration detention. That is significantly higher than in previous years. Some see prolonged detention as one factor causing this.

Concerns about healthcare in detention were recently raised by the AMA. And Parliament's Joint Select Committee inquiry into Australia's detention network commenced hearings this month. Over the years there have been several similar inquiries, but sadly there was little reform from so much paperwork.

In this context, a new report from the Centre for Policy Development (CPD) is welcome. Two of its authors, John Menadue and Arja Keski-Nummi, have long histories of senior level work in the Immigration Department. The third, Kate Gauthier, has a history in the advocacy and policy sectors.

They have drafted a document which hopes to change the direction of the debate on refugees, from one aimed at the lowest common denominator, to one based on the 'better angels of our nature' as President Lincoln said in his inauguration speech. Hopefully they will have better fortune than Lincoln.

The report proposes restructuring the debate on national security and asylum as well as engaging with other countries in the region; increasing resettlement numbers; delinking onshore and offshore processes; and introducing limited periods of detention for health and security screening only.

The significant savings from such policies could be more usefully spent on the settlement services that are needed by populations who have experienced trauma, than on interdiction and detention.

Written in the context of the world-wide movement of people, rather than a domestic political cycle, the report states that there are realistic alternatives to mandatory detention and excision of territories. The recommendations will contribute to an informed discussion on refugees.

Currently, this policy area is dominated by slogans (e.g. 'Stop the boats') that avoid complex realities. Issues of forced migration are not properly addressed by simple solutions like mandatory detention, TPVs and excision of islands.

Only 40 years ago the White Australia Policy came to an overdue end. The policy was a major part of Australian immigration policy from 1900, yet now, it is rightly viewed as flawed and misguided.

Just over 30 years ago a Liberal Government was actively involved in resettlement of refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam and the first real test of a non-white Australia policy had begun. Several hundred thousand Vietnamese and Cambodians were resettled in Australia. In a generation, Australia was changed dramatically and forever. Then the reform slowed.

Twenty years ago, a Labor Government responded to the arrival of several hundred Cambodians by boat with the mandatory detention policy. This issue has so dominated debate about immigration that nothing else can seriously get a word in. In the same period, the migration program has expanded and contracted according to the particular interests of Governments.

Ten years ago the focus on the Tampa and more 'boat people' left no room to consider the significant increase in the student visa program and where that was heading. Long delays in the processing of some skilled visa categories attract little public debate, even though they affect probably three times as many people as are affected by detention policies.

Only the collapse of colleges or attacks on students drew attention to such issues.

Considering the numbers involved, it is hard to understand why asylum seekers attract such adverse policy attention. Last financial year the migration program totalled 168,865 people, not including refugees and humanitarian cases. In the same period, around 80,000 visas were issued for the four year 457 business visa, and over 250,000 student visas were granted.

Nearly 14,000 people were granted visas under the refugee and humanitarian program, including around 4500 onshore, but not all were 'boat people'.

Harsh reactive policies of Government affecting around 2 per cent of the total migration program drives the debate. This is despite serious questions about the viability and the adverse health consequences of these policies. These issues are picked up by the CPD report in a genuine effort to redirect and improve the debate.

Last week I attended a dinner celebrating a multicultural community. Many of the Cambodians over 40 experienced war, the Pol Pot regime and probably were refugees. Some were even 'boat people'. One nine-year-old girl of Cambodian background spoke from her experience. 'Multiculturalism is a fact,' she declared; a glance around the room was all the evidence she needed.

A group of local school children sang the song 'I am Australian': 'We are one, but we are many, and from all the lands on earth we come ... I am, you are, we are Australian.' In a sports arena the song might seem jingoistic. But in a room where most of the people or their parents had arrived in Australia as refugees or migrants, the words led me to reflect on how much had been achieved.

We have come a long way in 40 years from white to multicultural Australia. Hopefully it will not be another generation before there is improvement in the debate on refugees.

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, asylum seekers, Malaysia solution, Tampa, Menadue



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Existing comments

No doubt we have created a silly, dangerous and avoidable situation with the 'boat people' fiasco.

But as far as suicide in the camps go, why, Gillard has the answer to that at her finger tips, or, from the finger tips of Jim Wallace and his neo-Christian chum, Peter Garrett.

After all, do we not hear Tim Mander and Peter Garrett, and Gillard for that matter, all singing the praises of the NSCP school chaplains in 'emergency situations'?

These largely unqualified people are good enough, so we are told, for 'the kiddies', assisting in suicide prevention and handing out food parcels to the hungry.

Just what we need with the 'boat people' to prevent suicide.

"But they are all Christians!" I hear the Doubting Thomas reader saying.

"So what?" is the Garrett, Gillard Mander response. These ATO funded 'chaplains' are there in schools for 'all the kiddies' and 'never' evangelise or proselytise, so they will be perfect for Muslim 'boat people'.

Won't they?

So why do we tolerate them in public schools?

Harold Wilson | 24 August 2011  

Thanks, Kerry. This summarises the issues so well with context and facts rather than myths. I'll be keeping the Bookmark for all those times when the myths seem to be overwhelming the truth.

ErikH | 24 August 2011  

Thanks Kerry for a useful framework to consider thoughtful and informed recommendations. Appalling that The Australian in an editorial yesterday had a half baked attack on the recommendations without having reported on the Report content or its recommendations. Not surprising that the Courier Mail, serving all of Qld had no reference at all about what could and should be a way out of the terrifying mess undermining universal rights which has the Coalition and Labor stalemated in a horror show of who is toughest.With over 700 000 refugees settled here since WW2 , I yearn for an explosion of principle from them and their descendants demanding acceptance that multicultural Australia is bedded in universal human rights, and that asylum seekers must have their right to seek protection from persecution honoured and respected. Many of my network around Australia who are close to refugee and migrant Australians are deeply affected and made ill by the current cruelty and inhumanity and are concerned for the harmony and peace in our society of the future. The growing gap between fine words about "Australian values" and the actions and threats of Government and Opposition to harm human beings seeking asylum is a major national issue.

Frederika Steen | 24 August 2011  

Thank you Kerry.

Jim Jones | 25 August 2011  

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