Not the Pacific Solution


Julia Gillard's new policy on asylum seekers appears at first sight to be politically effective. It promises to curb the boats eventually, without offering a quick and brutal fix. But it raises many questions.

The concept of a regional processing centre in East Timor appears to differ from the Pacific Solution in that it would be a cooperative venture between nations that are signatories to the United Nations Convention. These nations would presumably together have responsibility for offering protection to those found to be refugees.

The first challenge of any such centre will be to ensure a consistent, fair and statutory process for judging the claims of asylum seekers. Such a process does not exist on Christmas Island, and it will be difficult to ensure it on East Timor.

The Prime Minister also insists that the centre 'would, of course, have to be properly run, properly auspiced, properly structured'. For the Australian Government to ensure that such a centre in East Timor respects the human dignity of asylum seekers will be difficult. Similar arrangements with Indonesia were not satisfactory.

The next challenge will be to ensure that those found to be refugees are quickly resettled. Otherwise it will be difficult for East Timor to maintain support for the centre. The plight of people held in East Timor for an indefinite time would also attract attention both in Australia and elsewhere. It is difficult to see how there can be quick resettlement unless Australia, and perhaps New Zealand, receive most refugees. Other nations will regard them as Australia's responsibility. So this scheme is not an effective means of Australia shifting its perceived burden.

The third challenge will be to prevent rejected asylum seekers who make a claim within Australian territory from seeking redress in Australian courts. Current court cases in the High Court will test the legality of current Australian procedures. Because the Australian detention regime breaches the trust between asylum seekers and the Australian Government, it has been time consuming and difficult to deport asylum seekers whose cases have been dismissed. It may be difficult also in East Timor.

Finally, it will take much time to come to an agreement that satisfies the interests of Australia, New Zealand and East Timor, and is compatible with the demands of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In the meantime boats will continue coming, perhaps with greater urgency, to Australia. Any semblance of good order and compassion in the detention system is already breaking down. How will the Government cope with the influx?

Questions also remain about the treatment of Sri Lankan and Afghan asylum seekers. The United Nations recommendation that return to Sri Lanka is not uniformly unsafe for asylum seekers will be a relief to the Government. But each case will need to be assessed on its merits. And given the Sri Lankan Government's disregard for human rights during the civil war, to return people, particularly young Tamil men of military age, to Sri Lanka will be unconscionable unless their safety on return can be monitored.

We should ask for clarity on the processes by which the Government will monitor the safety of those deported from Australia.

The further delay imposed on processing Afghan asylum seekers is also unreasonable. It will entail prolonged detention under harsh conditions on Christmas Island or in remote parts of Australia and the anxiety of knowing that the Government is waiting for an assessment of security in Afghanistan that will make the rejection of their protection applications more likely. In addition, many of the asylum seekers are Hazaras whose safety in Afghanistan is always precarious, and now rests on the long-term security of life in Afghanistan. This can never be guaranteed within the ebb and flow of military action and claims for its success.

Finally, the tone of the Prime Minister's announcement again draws attention to the arbitrariness of the processing of asylum seekers who arrive by boat. The determination of their status is the responsibility of officers of the Government, with no access to statutory review. In the context of the Government's encouragement of debate about asylum seekers and its stated desire to discourage people from leaving Sri Lanka, it is impossible to conceive that the officers responsible will not feel under pressure to reject asylum seekers from Sri Lanka. That is manifestly unfair.

Much needs to be done to make Australia's present refugee policy fair. More will need to be done to turn today's promises into a fair and effective policy

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.


Topic tags: julia gillard, pacific solution, east timor, off-shore processing, asylum seekers, boat people



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Existing comments

Andrew raving on again ! He appears to have set himself up as the authority on everything that swims against the tide, be it support for lowdown drug gangsters without so much as a word for their victims or continual ranting and raving against anything any government can do for so called asylum seekers.
philip | 07 July 2010

Thanks Andrew - calm, balanced and helpful, as ever. Anne
anne benjamin | 07 July 2010

Rave on Andy! Rave on! It's better than the crippling silence that asks no questions. Better than the silence that denies the fundamental human need of those seeking freedom and dignity. Rave on!
Another Philip | 07 July 2010

The full transcript of Ms Gillard's speech at the Lowy Institute is avaialbe on the PM's website; it is worth reading.

Andrew's article raises important points, but I have yet to read a detailed and considered proposal to deal with the issue from 'the left'. Plenty of criticism and advice on what not to do, but we do need a positive plan.

Personally, i don't know the answer, is there one?
chris | 07 July 2010

I have just returned from Timor Leste and find the suggestion that the East Timorese could benefit from an refugee processing station an odd addition to their economic woes. The county's economy is significantly buoyed by the presence of United Nations workers, NGOs, Church groups and others but lacks significant access to the staples it should already own: minerals, oil, gas. Perhaps the Australian government is suggesting a refugee led recovery for our closest neighbour. Maybe better to return more of the oil and gas field rights to East Timor than to push cash into some new, possibly unsustainable, off shore refugee centre.
Tony Haintz | 07 July 2010

Right to the point. Keep it up. As it stands now it's a choice between cruel and more cruel.

It says something about our country that this issue has such political bite.
RFI Smith | 07 July 2010

So long as Australia continues to cadge off the education and training investments of other nations by operating a skilled immigration program even as our own youth wallows in untrained ignorance and squalor, we will have neither available resources nor vibrant active communities into which refugees can be resettled.

So do the small government teachings of Hayek et al engender the 'neoliberalist' perversion of patriotism that is the last refuge of the ignorant xenophobe.

Are you paying attention, members of the former Howard government?
David Arthur | 07 July 2010

Anything that discourages desperate people drowning en route to Australia should be welcome and is the most compassionate response. The "Pacific Solution" did this by advertising the fact the people smugglers would not now achieve their aims. But of course, Labor's only possible solution is to re-package it so that it doesn't look like the Howard government's policy. Cynical? Sure. Will the voters fall for it? You bet!
Ian | 07 July 2010

I agree Andrew.
Helen | 07 July 2010

Andrew, you usually are supportive of people who attempt to do some good, but it seems not this time. Julia Gillard's speech said many good things about refugees that needed to be said, and it was a political risk to say them.

There is no ideal solution to the refugee problem. If this plan works at well as it can be made to, it might be the be best solution realistically possible. To ask the Australian government to solve the world refugee problem is like asking why the Church hasn't taken care of the all the homeless - you just don't have the capacity to do it.
Russell | 07 July 2010

If nothing else at least Andrew Hamilton's treatise on the asylum seekers' problem is sober. Nevertheless, like all of my co-Labor supporters who were disappointed at Rudd's handling of the affair, Hamilton does not offer a solution. Of course, "much needs to be done to make Australia's present refugee policy fair", but those who (rightly) oppose Abbott's - nee Howard's - shoot- and -drown- the- bastard approach are still groping in the dark and have no answer to the problem. I think it's time to stop talking about it. Let's face it, the 'great unwashed' are xenophobic. Anything less than a straight forward humanitarian approach is just fiddling with votes. In the meantime, Abbott should be ashamed of his unChristian and definitely inhuman approach. It seems that the Libs have not learned to believe in charity.
Alex Njoo | 07 July 2010

Thank you Andrew for searching to find the good in this policy and for clearly pointing out the challenges which must be met in order to make it effective and above all fair.
Why have we become such a selfish, fearful nation,unwilling to share our good fortune with others who are manifestly in dire need of a "fair go"? Many of our ancestors and some great Australians were refugees who have contributed to the benefits we enjoy today.
Margaret | 07 July 2010

"Much needs to be done to make Australia's present refugee policy fair" - I would be very grateful if someone would tell me in specifics just what needs to be done. The only people with specific suggestions appear to be all bent on keeping refugees out.
Richard Johnson | 07 July 2010

someone like PM definitely must answer and give a solution to this crisis.

I wonder why they can't bring everyone into the mainland Australia - somewhere wide and free and cheap to operate. Let it be in the Northern Territory for fast access. Let it be where the refugees can move around and feel free. And let that place be safe and isolated from urban area so that political and local complaints can be avoided. Let the place be as large as all new comers can be settled in. Let the place be no need for security and barbwire. And should have a condition for both short and long term residents.

Working with other countries has proved expensive and ineffective - Politically complicated too. And obviously no other countries want share this pure Aus-problem.
AZURE | 07 July 2010

The real problem is that the whole issue has become caught up in gutter politics. We have been reminded of the Vietnamese refugees a few decades ago under Malcolm Fraser when the issue was seen as above party politics.problems were solved by co-operation with regional neigbours.

At the moment many refugees are in limbo in refugees camps in Indonesia and elsewhere and are potential victims of people smugglers. The long term answer must be higher quotas of refugees by more developed countries. long term as we have learned with the Vietnamese that most make good citizens and contribute to the prosperity of the country.
John Ozanne | 07 July 2010

Thanks Andy - essential critique in this search for solutions to Australia's part in this great humanitarian challenge. Australians can be proud that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we were led positively in bipartisan spirit - to respond to the Indo-China Orderly Departure Program.

None of it was easy. Our government with several other SE Asian and Western Pacific nations committed resourcefully to fund assessment centres in many strategic locations. Additionally, because of the specific circumstances of the Vietnam war, there were 9 -10 countries (Australia included) willing to be co-ordinated skilfully by the UNHCR as countries of final destination. This brought international equity as to which nation would take which numbers of refugees. The results of the ODP in Australia? By late 1980s, approx 60,000 Indo-Chinese had been settled in Australia - far greater numbers in 4-5 other countries. A major plus in the settlement process here was the well-resourced community partnerships initiated by federal government. In many communities around the country, churches, service clubs, sports clubs, and other civic bodies became friends and neighbours giving social support to newly arrived refugees. What can be learned from the stark contrast between our national mindset then and now?
Wayne Sanderson | 07 July 2010

There's a lot of subtlety in Julia Gillard's words. While the good things in it could turn out to be weasel words, they could turn out to be a very positive step towards a better approach.

No ambiguity from Mr Abbott; he's joined the dark side without ruth or scruple.
Jim Jones | 07 July 2010

During the years I met frequently with Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, we often discussed how the situation might be improved in Indonesia (especially Java) so as to reduce the prospect of asylum seekers having to make the treacherous boat journey seeking appropriate processing and a durable solution in Australia. I was always told that there were limits to how much Australia could do and fund in Indonesia because of the risk that Indonesia would become a honey pot for persons seeking asylum.

In the final years of the Howard government and during the Rudd government, significant work was done with DEPLU, IOM and UNHCR gradually to improve the standards of processing, detention, and promptness of resettlement in and from Indonesia. This has been a fine balancing act.

If it remains good policy to ensure that Indonesia does not become a honey pot, surely the same argument must go for East Timor. If a regional processing centre were to be established there satisfying the relevant criteria, there would be a need for asylum seekers arriving in East Timor to be assured: transparent processing, humane detention, and prompt resettlement to one of the countries signing up to the arrangement. If these conditions were to be satisfied in East Timor, why not just satisfy them in Indonesia? If these conditions are to be satisfied in East Timor but not in Indonesia, will this not set up a magnet effect to East Timor? Would not asylum seekers coming over the land border from West Timor have to be accorded the same benefits as those who risked the journey by sea to Australia? If not, and if you were to discriminate in favour of those who had attempted the perilous voyage to Australia, would you not then be creating an incentive for people to attempt the voyage simply as to avail themselves of the more benign processing track in Timor?

Is not the proposal therefore unworkable, unprincipled and counterproductive? If not, what have I missed, and how can it be made to work? If it can be made to work, would not a simpler arrangement be to put the workable arrangement in place in Indonesia rather than East Timor? Invoking Timor’s adherence to the Refugee Convention would seem to me a piece of useless formalism.

I gave my suggestions for the way forward a couple of weeks ago at

Frank Brennan SJ | 07 July 2010

Andrew, I think you let Julia Gillard off the hook far too easily. Your second paragraph does not convince me that there is any substantial difference between Gillard's solution and the Pacific solution. It is still about keeping the asylum seekers off the mainland while their claims are processed. How you can condemn Howard's old policies but accept Gillard's is beyond me.
Patrick James | 07 July 2010

Why are we making such a huge problem about Asylum Seekers, wishing to escape persecution and terror, and wanting to make a new home with us?

The answer is so simple in my mind, and I might think to any one seriously wishing to solve this humanitarian problem.

Why can we not admit these people to our Australian shores ... and I don't mean to some isolated area in Western Australia ... process them with all haste, and let them get on with their lives here, as good Australian citizens.

Why do we need to ask another country to take over our responsibilities? How degrading!

Where is our pride in trying to make this a more just world.

I am once again ashamed to be an Australian, if we start pushing Asylum Seekers anywhere but here.

We are called the 'lucky country' Lucky for whom? ... certainly not for those born into war and strife ... We could more likely be called the racist, selfish country.

Why so much fear?

Julia Gillard, have a heart, and encourage the Australian people to stand up for those less fortunate than themselves.

You may be surprised at the response, when it is seen we are giving people a "fair go'
Bernie | 07 July 2010

I am so disappointed in the party I voted for. Boats are still going to leave Indonesia with people smugglers. East Timor solution returns us to the Howard years. Now who should I vote for. Let the boats come and prosecute the smugglers, not the poor people of the countries Australia pretends to be defending.
Mira Zeimer | 08 July 2010

I spent a month in East Timor earlier this year. I'm anxious about Asylum seekers being sent there as ET is a very poor country and they need to look after their own people first. I'm not against Julia Gillard, I'm just concerned for all Asylum Seekers and I think Australia could well do a lot more to welcome them. Thanks for your very informative article.

Breda O'Reilly | 08 July 2010

The best thing in my opinion to come out of this recent attempt by Julia Gillard to solve the refugee problem was to hear both Jose Ramos Horta and Xanana Gusmao saying Timor would only be interested in a humanitarian solution. Compassion has lagged way behind self- interest in most comments from our political leaders.
Anne Forbes | 08 July 2010

I love the compassion in this country. It's like boat people who came before turn into savages as soon as they can draw up the bridge.

I even heard an East Timorese man who came here as a refugee claim we should turn away new people.

Talk about selfish and lazy.

And Philip Ruddock, is that you.
Marilyn Shepherd | 09 July 2010

But Frank, you know commonsense and decency play no part here. Ruddock always says we can't take people from Indonesia because they were "trying to come here illegally" which of course they were not.

We have to stop all the people smuggling crap too, no-one is being smuggled and if they were so what?

Better smuggled than dead as many thousands of jews found out.
Marilyn Shepherd | 09 July 2010

Another thoughtful contribution. Although there were some positive elements in Gillard's speech, her reference to open debate and not demonising each other was a bit reminiscent of Howard's dog-whistling. But I didn't like the reference to the 'great unwashed'in Alex's posting, this reminds me of the stupid snobbish references to Pauline Hanson's (then) occupation and lack of education.It plays into the hands of those rightwingers who love to characterise their opponents as élitist', which enables them to pose as champions of the 'battlers. Racism and xenophobia are ugly attitudes, whoever holds them and they need to be combated by reasoned argument and, in the case of churches, moral leadership.(Hallo Tony Abbott?? "Mr. Catholic"???) The difference between Gillard's rhetoric and that of Howard and his cohorts is that hers is much more inclusive, like that of Bob Hawke. Sometimes appealing to people's better nature, as opposed to whipping up their fears, does work.We should give Gillard the benefit of the doubt here and remember that the 'plague on both your houses' approach can sometimes bring about the greater, not the lesser of two evils.
Ann | 13 July 2010

Ann, to the likes of you I am "stupid, snobbish". But really, Pauline Hanson was a huge aberration in the Australian psyche. All the same, where's your solution to the asylum seekers' problem. If they're white South Africans or Rhodesians (Zimbabweans), they'd be welcomed with open arms. Remember Howard's remarks about the white Rhodesian farmers? Some of us even resent the presence of an ever increasing number of people from the sub-continent in our midst. Would we've gone ga-ga if they'd come from Lincolnshire or Manchester? Sorry. The issue here is not whether Gillard does a Rudd, it's simply that we (yes, the great unwashed) don't like the colour of the asylum seekers. We may not be racist in the strictest term of the description but we're certainly not charitable or even generous about the plight of other humans!
Alex Njoo | 13 July 2010


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