The impact of leaky asylum boats on the Federal Election


The impact of leaky asylum boats on the Federal ElectionThankfully, no more leaky asylum boats have arrived in Australia with an election in the air. But the announcement of refugee status being granted to 72 Sri Lankan asylum seekers detained on Nauru throws into relief the policy differences between the major political parties and the differing views of refugee advocates. The issues in contention are the Pacific solution operating out of Nauru and the use of the new Christmas Island detention centre (pictured). Labor is committed to abolishing the Pacific solution, while maintaining Christmas Island. Many refugee advocates want Labor to abandon Christmas Island as well.

On 12 September 2007, Kevin Andrews, the Minister for Immigration, announced the refugee status for the Sri Lankans and said, 'Australia is now exploring resettlement options in other countries for the Sri Lankans that have been assessed as being refugees. They will remain in Nauru while arrangements are made to resettle them elsewhere.'

When he first became minister, Andrews was unaware that his own public servants would continue to process the refugee claims on Nauru, just as they would if the asylum seekers remained on Christmas Island. There are three differences between Nauru and Christmas Island.

Failed asylum seekers on Nauru have no right of appeal to any Australian court. Wisely, the government does not make too much of this difference in public because it leads to the inference that decent Australian public servants are more likely to decide that a person is not a refugee if their deliberations are immune from scrutiny by any court or tribunal. When you are trying to change the culture and the public image of a government department that has had a rough trot with cases like Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon, this is not a good look — particularly for an earnest lawyer like Andrews. Second, Australian lawyers and do gooders can be more readily kept out of Nauru. Third, refugees on Nauru have never entered Australia and thus other countries may be willing to receive them.

The Howard government’s Pacific solution was enacted because it was thought that even those boat people successfully claiming refugee status would never make it to Australia. But 95 per cent of them have eventually made it to Australia or New Zealand. They have just had to wait up to an extra five years. The justification for the Pacific solution has been the need to deter refugees from engaging in secondary movement by employing people smugglers.

The impact of leaky asylum boats on the Federal ElectionThis justification came horribly unstuck when the government tried to extend the Pacific solution to Papuan asylum seekers who would be engaged in direct flight without people smugglers. Bruce Baird, the leader of the backbench revolt in August 2006 on the extension of the Pacific Solution, told Parliament that the New Zealand government would no longer take refugees from Nauru if Australia tried to apply the Pacific solution to all boat people. The Pacific solution is incoherent and it will go if Kevin Rudd is elected Prime Minister. 

Christmas Island is a different story. In response to David Marr’s claim that the Christmas Island detention centre was established on such a remote island in the Indian Ocean 'to keep the cost of investigating these stories very high', Philip Ruddock, the political architect of both these offshore arrangements, has responded, 'The truth of course is that the Christmas Island detention centre sends a very strong message to people smugglers and their clients. The message is that there is no fast-track to the mainland. There is no way to jump the queue.'

Those found to be refugees on Christmas Island will inevitably end up in Australia. Not even New Zealand will take them, and why should it? Though many refugee advocates are strong opponents of the new Christmas Island facility, I have continually conceded to government the place of such a facility in a border protection strategy aimed at isolating and detaining unvisaed boat arrivals until initial screening can occur, permitting immediate return of those with demonstrably unmeritorious asylum claims, and facilitating health and security checks of those asylum seekers whose claims will take some time to process. Many refugee advocates will continue to argue that failed asylum seekers on Christmas Island should have access to the Refugee Review Tribunal as well as the courts.

It is important to give credit where it is due. The Howard government has increased the size of our migration program, including the refugee and humanitarian component. The Rudd opposition has consistently opposed the Pacific solution and the unfortunate consequences of the temporary protection visa (TPV). Courageous Coalition backbenchers have heeded the call to end long-term detention of children.

At this election, there will be some people who will vote against the Howard government because of the appalling Pacific solution and the ongoing effects of the TPV. Hopefully there will be fewer people voting for the Howard government because of policies like the Pacific solution. The deliberations of civil society might even make a difference in the policy formulation of the political parties and the people’s choice of government, providing a fair go for all refugees, including those who arrive by boat without a visa. Along with many other matters, this election will decide the fate of the 72 proven refugees now required to wait on Nauru.



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Existing comments

It's a clear and offensive contradiction in terms for Fr Brennan to make the inference that he does, that "decent Australian public servants are more likely to decide that a person is not a refugee if their deliberations are immune from scrutiny by any court or tribunal"

Fr Brennan's definition of the word "decent" would fall far short of everyone else's if he believes that decency is a virtue that's deetermined by scrutiny or the absence of it.All the "decent" people I've ever known remained decent whether or not they were under scrutiny...public or otherwise.They're not given to putting it aside under any handy cloak.

Were I one of the public servcants he refers to, I'd be quite incensed.

Fr Brennan needs to be reminded that one of the most powerful courts in the world is the court of public opinion..and that remains unassailed.

In fact, Fr Brennan himself is using that right now!

"Australian lawyers and so-called do gooders" may well, as he claims, " more readily kept out of Nauru" but the faint-hearted will always be deterred whatever the size of the obstacle confronting them.

Rather than muddying the waters for those Sri Lankans on Nauru who have had their refugee status confirmed, let's all hope they're found new places to live.Making politically provocative remarksabout so-called leaky (election) boats will help no one, especially those on Nauru.

Worse, they may even put them at some risk.

Brian Haill | 21 September 2007  

I think the point Brian Haill is missing in Fr Frank's article is that away from public scrutiny, public servants will come under more pressure (in priavte) to reject applications from asylum seekers.
Bravo Frank - good article.

Barry | 22 September 2007  

Mr Haill writes that " of the most powerful courts in the world is the court of public opinion..and that remains unassailed."
I am rather less confident of the power and unassailability of that court than Mr Haill.
First, no court can give sound judgement in the absence of evidence; public ignorance is pulic disempowerment. When opinion is largely informed by 'Australian Idol', 'Big Brother', and the 'Footy Show', rather than, say, any credible dissertation on the absence of WMD in Iraq.
Second, that arguments for (re-)election remain based upon perceptions of material well-being, even as liberties won in the centuries since Magna Carta are being assailed, suggests that the court of public opinion is so degenerate as to not be bothered hearing the case.

David Arthur | 30 September 2007  

Clearly you don't know Frank Brian but I suggest you read the article again and add the requisite amount of sarcasm that I have come to know and love when Frank speaks of this ugly policy.

He is not cheering the decent public servants or panning the meddling lawyers and do-gooders, he is sending up the clowns in the government who categorise us as such.

As to the people on Nauru, where would you have them go Brian? Anywhere but here?

If public opinion has not been changed why don't we lock up kids anymore?

Marilyn Shepherd | 02 October 2007  

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