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The quality of asylum seeker processing

  • 02 April 2007

The interception of a group of 83 Sri Lankan asylum seekers by the Australian Navy in late February prompted renewed public discussion about the way Australia should respond to people who arrive in this country in search of protection.

The government initially said it would return the group to Indonesia. The Indonesians said that they would send them back to Sri Lanka. But without a guarantee that they would be safe in Sri Lanka, and after a good deal of deliberation and negotiation, the Australian government decided the group is to have its claims for protection assessed on Nauru.

The handling of the Sri Lankan asylum seekers by the government looked clumsy and ad hoc. More alarmingly, it also looked precariously close to risking the return of a group of people to a situation where they could have been placed in grave danger.

In part, this indicates the flawed assumptions that have underpinned Australia’s response to asylum seekers for the past decade and a half. These assumptions can be summarised thus: asylum seekers – people who are deemed to be of questionable character, particularly because they rely on people smugglers – must be deterred from seeking protection in Australia lest this country be seen as 'soft' and therefore a place where more asylum seekers might seek to come.

In the long term, these assumptions and their policy implications ought to be challenged. Asylum seeker policy and practice ought to be radically altered. More immediately, there is a need to engage in policy change that allows the existing system to be made more protection-focused while not being so drastic as to frighten policy-makers from its implementation. I am soon to have a discussion paper published on the APO website which seeks such a compromise. It does not call for the dismantling of the Pacific Solution. Nor does it call for a revamping of the legislative regime that has proven so bankrupt. What it does seek to do is to identify ways in which Australia’s response to asylum seekers can be better balanced between border control and the obligation to offer protection to those who need it. In the first place, upon interception, the Sri Lankans ought to have been informed that they would be returned from whence they came unless they had reason to fear returning and then been offered an opportunity to express any such fear. As radical as it