Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Separating refugee policy from politics



Mohammed and Rosie came to Australia from Iran seeking protection. Until late 2018, they were sleeping on a friend's lounge room floor. They each received $240 per week (89 per cent of the Newstart payment) as part of the Status Resolution Support Service (SRSS), which helped them to buy food, clothing, and hygiene items, and pay a small amount in rent.

Shadow Minister for Home Affairs Kristina Keneally on the campaign trail in May 2019. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)In November 2018, the government notified Mohammed and Rosie that their SRSS support would be withdrawn. They were very distressed by the news and anxious about the fact that they had not yet secured a job, despite their numerous attempts, or been able to find suitable housing.

The odds were never in their favour. Mohammed and Rosie are in their mid-60s, speak little English, and have had very little education. They are also suffering from debilitating long term illnesses. Mohammed was part of a community gardening group, which we hoped would assist him to build networks, develop new skills, and improve his mental health. But after his SRSS payments were cancelled, Mohammed could not afford the weekly commute and stopped attending. Without employment and a safety net, Mohammed and Rosie are homeless. They rely on food aid and emergency vouchers from JRS and other organisations to survive day-to-day.

Homelessness, hunger, enforced poverty, and unending limbo — these are ongoing realities for thousands of children, women, and men seeking Australia's protection irrespective of how or when they arrived. The government slashed the federal budget allocation for SRSS from $139.8 million in 2017 — 2018 to $52.6 million in 2019 — 2020, a reduction of more than 62 per cent. 13,299 people were on the program in February 2018, and only 5,888 remain in April 2019.

Many who have waited years for interviews with the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) or some form of merits review have been cut off and are having protection claims rejected. They now wait anywhere from six months to two years for court hearings.

Others have been found to be refugees and have access to Newstart and English language training. But the government's 2014 Legacy Caseload Bill, legislated with Clive Palmer's support, ensures that approximately 15,000 refugees in this group are given three to five year temporary protection visas with no effective prospects for permanent settlement.

The Bill also warrants that these refugees will not be permitted to bring their families to Australia. The deliberate removal of the right to family reunion for this group has created a circumstance in which Australia has thousands of people recognised as having a well founded fear of persecution at home, but deems it appropriate to leave their spouses, children, and parents in the same situations. Many have not seen their loved ones for up to eight years.


"Australians cannot let this reality continue. Addressing it requires an intentional cross-party and whole-of-society approach to reframing and rethinking the parameters of the debate."


The plight of the men and women on Manus Island and Nauru is equally urgent. Recent reports indicate at least 26 cases of attempted suicide of self-harm on Manus since 18 May. Behrouz Boochani tells the story of a young man who set his room on fire and was taken to the local jail. 'He has witnessed his dreams being stripped away. He is a young man who, like many others held on these two islands, could have lived a simple and safe life in a free society.'

Emerging dissonances in politics and policy-making

Simplicity, safety, freedom, being with loved ones — these are the basic and fundamentally human desires of all the refugees and people seeking asylum caught up in our broken policy regime. They would be our desires if we were in the same situations.

The recent federal election was not fought on the backs of refugees and people seeking asylum. Neither major party actively stoked fear of the refugee outsider or extolled the virtue of strong borders during the campaign. This election showed us that refugees and people seeking asylum do not need to be instrumentalised for votes. Perhaps refugee policymaking could be separated from politics. Perhaps it could be evidence-based and humane, made beyond the reaches of the 24 hour news cycle or the polls.

Alas, the prevailing frames and politics of border protection quickly came to the fore post-election. Despite its clear and undisputed mandate for the next three years, the government needed to question the new Shadow Minister for Home Affairs' position on Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB). Labor in turn needed to reaffirm its support for the principles of turn-backs, offshore processing, and community safety. The mainstream media followed suit in its coverage, and after years of government silence about 'on water operations,' information about boats off our coast line suddenly appeared in newspapers again.

Despite this newfound electoral reality, the thrust of refugee and asylum policy-making also remains unchanged and unchallenged, stuck in the deeply institutionalised logic of deterrence. This in spite of the fact that the powerful idea that any inkling of humane treatment will galvanise the people smugglers and restart the boats has been disproven time and time again.

As we have written elsewhere, abolishing permanent protection visas, cutting support services, and sending people to Manus and Nauru never stopped the boats. There have been 33 known boat turn-back operations since the announcement of OSB spread across five years since 2013. The necessary transfer of more than 1250 children, women, and men to Australia for medical treatment under Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison was accomplished without any major new influx of boats or collapse in OSB. Ditto the passage of the MedEvac Bill this year.

So even though we now know elections can successfully be fought and won beyond the toxic politics of fear, refugee and asylum policy, bureaucratic structures and on-the-ground practices continue to be predicated upon policy changes that came into effect post Tampa in 2001 and post 'Stop the Boats' in 2013.

This dissonance between a changed electoral landscape and the continuation of entrenched policies can be characterised by what Robert Manne calls 'automaticity' in our orientation towards those who arrived by boat between 2010 and 2014. The relation of one deterrent measure to another and the relationship of means to ends have been forgotten, and what may previously have demonstrably served a purpose is now purposeless cruelty.

How do we confront purposeless cruelty?

For people like Mohammed, Rosie, Behrouz, and the thousands of other innocent people who came to Australia seeking safety, the current reality is one of pain, suffering, and even death. It is a reality they have no choice of turning away from.

Australians cannot let this reality continue. Addressing it requires introspection, honesty, and bold leadership. It also requires an intentional cross-party and whole-of-society approach to reframing and rethinking the parameters of the debate. Getting to this point is an aspiration, but we have to try and work towards it. Parliamentarians, business leaders, university professors, union officials, faith groups, celebrities, diasporas, leaders with lived experience and everyday Australians all have a role to play in demonstrating to our political class as a whole that such a rethink is necessary.

For a start we can learn to listen, digest, and understand others' views even if they disagree with us; be curious and critical about the multitude of facts presented and their sources; learn how to have values and rights-based conversations; find and share different kinds of stories; join local parish or community groups who care about changing the conversation, and speak to local and federal leaders.



Carolina Gottardo and Nishadh Rego are Director and Policy and Advocacy Coordinator respectively for Jesuit Refugee Service Australia.

Main image: Shadow Minister for Home Affairs Kristina Keneally on the campaign trail in May 2019. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Carolina Gottardo, Nishadh Rego, refugees, migrants, Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison, Kristina Keneally



submit a comment

Existing comments

How do we confront purposeless cruelty? I doubt if purposeless cruelty will disappear under a Coalition government. So I see little chance of a humane asylum seeker policy for the next 3 years. Lobbying Labor for a policy change may be our only hope.

Grant Allen | 05 June 2019  

I shudder at the thought of any possibility that Kristina Keneally may enter into the usual political discourse on this issue especially where Dutton is involved and we revert to the same old conversation goimg nowhere. There is hope if we start to engage in more meaningful evidence based discussion in our communities (and with and from our politicians especially those we could expect a values alignment).

Jane Woolford | 06 June 2019  

Dutton has used Manus and Nauru as a cornerstone of his record of achievement in Home Affairs. He has no apparent feelings about the refugees. His portfolio has spent billions on refugee security with Ferrovial who lease Heathrow. What a waste. Nothing will change under the Coalition. They have no capacity for self examination. The Chinese incursions into Australia's Antarctic territory building 6 military bases did not even figure as an election issue, so in reality the Coalition have locked the front door into Australia, aquiesced in the States selling off our ports and left the Antarctic back door open. If this Government really believed in human rights it would bring in the refugees and put them to work on Communal farms for 5 years growing seedlings and (for example) utilize them to help build a channel from the Burdekin to the Darling. There are plenty of projects they could work on. Why couldnt they be planting one billion trees like they are doing in NZ? The current setup is a human rights disgrace.

francis Armstrong | 06 June 2019  

'The recent federal election was not fought on the backs of refugees and people seeking asylum'! So Dutton's policies and presence were ignored by everyone?

angela | 06 June 2019  

Refugee policy can't possibly be separated from politics in a democracy. To suggest that it can is oxymoronic.

john frawley | 07 June 2019  

I am horrified that two weeks after the election my parish priest wrote on the church bulletin 'We are most fortunate that in our country the leaders of our major parties are principally Christian and strive to follow the ancient Judaic/Christian virtues of Justice, Freedom and Peace'. I wasn't surprised that my relatives, who are protestant churchgoers, voted for the LNP because Morrison is a Christian but I did expect more from a Catholic priest. Morrison was in advertising and by posing waving in his Pentacostal church, he came up with the best bit of advertising in his life. When he wife reported that he wept on his knees, it was another excellent piece of propaganda.

Mary Round | 07 June 2019  

The LNP will not change. Change will only come when Labor adopts Labor for Refugees` policy. Refresh the Gillard solution devised by Angus Houston, Aristotle and another. Decent people must lean on Labor.

Allan Jackson | 07 June 2019  

I need reassurance that most Australians do care about injustice and believe in a fair go for everyone. I want to think it’s a matter of understanding what persecution is, and the forms it takes, and then the majority will demand compliance with human rights laws by our Parliament, and this tragedy of indefinite detention and life in limbo for men women and children who have sought our protection and been grievously punished instead, WILL END

Freddie | 07 June 2019  

Well said, John Frawley! I find the following fervorino on the ES website a curiosity: "If there's one thing that the recent election campaign and its outcome demonstrated, it's the depth of the divisions that exist in our Australian community. Our politics is focused on point-scoring, personalities, and name-calling across party lines. The media, for the most part, don't help, driven by the 24-hour news cycle and the pursuit of advertising dollars into a frenzy of click-bait and shallow sensationalism. What does it mean to be an Australian in times like these? What are the values that unite us? Eureka Street offers an alternative. It's less a magazine than a wide ranging conversation about the issues that matter in our country and our world; a conversation marked by respect for the dignity of ALL human beings. Importantly, it's a conversation that takes place in the open, unhindered by paywalls or excessive advertising. And it's through the support of people like you that it is able to do so." In my humble experience all the websites in which I participate observe these rules without the sanctimony that ES claims. Democracy's essence is open disagreement from which the polity can effectively choose.

Michael Furtado | 07 June 2019  

Perhaps if the conversations could draw from best practice. What is happening around the world in the 62 countries of second asylum. Where are countries applying policies that are evidence based and humane? There have been several books by authors, recently, to propose rational policies for refugee policy. Betts and Collyer in their book "Refuge" and Melbourne based policy analyst "The Mess We're in" by Andrew Bennetts. Detention offshore is now beyond reason and rationality. The camps have to be closed. I see that as number one priority.

John Kilner | 08 June 2019  

Facts don't change hearts and minds that are closed on this issue . Only a discussion based on assumed shared values seems to work at all. Do you believe compassion is a strength not a weakness? Do you value justice, rule of law, fairness, kindness, freedom and liberty? This is where people have to stop and think because most people will answer yes to all of these things except that people seeking asylum have become dehumanized , depersonalized, scapegoated and demonized. However justice and fairness and liberty and safety are things that should not apply to some humans and not others. They should be universal

Taariq HASSAN | 09 June 2019  

The problem is the media have enabled the lying politicians do be this cruel and so have disgusting pollsters who have asked for the past 18 years ''who is best to be cruel to refugees'', and then the pollies make policy around that. What has been forgotten in Australia for decades is that everyone has the right to seek asylum without fear of further punishment or discrimination so we get this nonsense of racist arguments about ''it's not legal to come by sea'' even though it is. We have the Ruddock invented lie of smugglers to justify cruelty and no mainstream or any other media correct that lie, I do and they call me a moonbat and supporter of criminals.

Marilyn | 10 June 2019  

This is so political and so superficial Please think deeper and acknowledge the underlying issues. You are just tagging the trend and I am very tired of hearing these trends through the media. THINK DEEPER PLEASE.

Tricia Blanks | 11 June 2019  

Your insightful, pithy comment was the best so far on this thread, John Frawley.

Edward Fido | 12 June 2019  

Thank you Tricia Blanks. You are right. Think deeper. An article in The Conversation currently has highlighted how close Australia came to a regional solution. [https://theconversation.com/the-shameful-history-of-blundering-asylum-seeker-policy-118396]. What stopped a more humane policy from emerging? Mostly politicians talking openly about options as they were being negotiated with countries and a media that spiked policy before it emerged. And politicians not negotiating with interested parties. A further article highlights how a new regional policy can work. [https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/31/theres-a-workable-alternative-to-australias-asylum-policy.] Australia's preference is for a coordinated resettlement program. One that discourages dangerous and unsustainable sea arrivals. That arrival does not necessarily equate to permanent settlement. [Australia is not cruel to UNHCR arrivals.] What we have now is targeted cruelty that leaves everyone feeling most uncomfortable. Basically, what is needed is a fundamental shift in how refugee law is implemented. And how asylum seekers are dealt with. Placing them on an equal footing around the region. If the authors can follow their advice - show deft of thinking and write in future on what they see are the options - seriously addressing the concerns of uncoordinated and unrestricted refugee policy [concerns with that are amplified across all countries of second asylum, globally] and offering solutions - then there's a chance that something effective, fit for purpose and sustainable may emerge. [Here is the link to discussion of what this policy could be like - https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/31/theres-a-workable-alternative-to-australias-asylum-policy]

John Kilner | 12 June 2019  

John Kilner, the lazy ''regional solution' you claim is decent is a lie, there are over 8 million refugees in the region and our preferences is that we accept none of them. The fact is 18 of our embassies in the region already assess claims BUT ONLY IF THE UNHCR REFER PEOPLE. Regional ''solution'' is code for don't bother us.

Marilyn | 13 June 2019  

As per usual, comments with not a lot of references to statistics or fact from Marilyn. How can a proposed regional solution be a lie when it has never been adopted? [Vietnamese post war agreement between nations was close to a regional solution.] The UNHCR has expressed interest in assisting such an initiative. Eight million in the region? Let's see - fourteen thousand in Indonesia; over 100,000 in Malaysia. Over 60,000 in Thailand, 8,000 in Bangkok. Over 200,000 in India. That's UNHCR registered numbers; likely to be much higher. There's over a million in Pakistan but just as many have returned to Pakistan over the last few years. PM Khan in Pakistan is currently signalling those who wish to stay may do so. So where's the 8 million? And who is seeking resettlement? All of them? Actually, a difficult to answer question but UNHCR has several hundred thousand a year apply. Most want to go home and wait to do so. [Internally displaced, of course, the vast majority.] Not sure what you mean by your second sentence. But here is a quote from Wikipedia website. "Though the UNHCR recommends or refers people for resettlement, the ultimate decision to grant a visa rests with Australia's Immigration Department. ... Refugees seeking to enter Australia on a Refugee visa (subclass 200) must satisfy numerous criteria that are more onerous than onshore Protection visas." Oh, and the figures for resettlement in Australia are 910,000 approximately since 1947, with high cohorts from Indochina, Sri Lanka, Burma, East Timor [that would be our region.]

John Kilner | 14 June 2019  

Similar Articles

Support men as equal parenting partners

  • Nicola Heath
  • 12 June 2019

Employer-led change is happening. But if we want men to take on a greater role in caregiving, what we need is structural change: universal, use-it-or-lose-it parental leave offered to both parents instead of the old primary/secondary caregiver model that entrenches existing gender roles.


All men have a stake in the ills of the patriarchy

  • Catherine Marshall
  • 03 June 2019

When Melburnian Courtney Herron was murdered, the topic of male violence started trending. In one of the most incisive comments on what is an all-too-frequent occurrence, Victoria's Police Commissioner Luke Cornelius said it was time for men to start taking responsibility for the violence. Men — not all men, but many — took umbrage.