The truth about airborne asylum seekers


The Coalition's one-liners and slogans don't make for a credible refugee policy. Neither does recycling failed policies of the past, like Nauru, which was a failure at the time and cannot be repeated.

The Howard Government policies did stop the boats, but asylum seekers continued to come by air at a rate of about 4000 per annum. In the last 10 years, 76 per cent of asylum seekers coming to Australia came by air.

The trend of asylum seekers to Australia in the 2000s followed very closely the trend to other OECD countries. What drove the numbers of asylum seekers was the ebb and flow of persons fleeing from Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. The Howard Government policies had little influence on the outcome.

The Nauru 'solution' cost $1 billion over five years and all but 45 of the 1637 asylum seekers imprisoned on Nauru, who were found to be refugees, finished up in Australia or New Zealand.

The Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship has said very clearly that what meagre success Nauru may have had in the past, it cannot be repeated.

Further, Nauru can play no part in an essential regional arrangement. It is not a transit country as Malaysia is.

The Coalition again proposes temporary protection visas. But these visas resulted in the past in families risking their lives because the holder of the temporary protection visas could not sponsor family. The result ten years ago on SIEV-X was the drowning of 288 women and children.

The Coalition says it will turn the boats back to Indonesia. Indonesia will not accept this and the RAN says that it is too dangerous and will give priority to rescuing people at sea.

The Coalition has said that 'the more boats that come the better'. This cynicism has been reflected in two recent statements by Scott Morrison. The first was to criticise the meagre Government support for vulnerable asylum seekers in the community and second, by suggesting that asylum seekers were bringing infectious diseases to Australia. Surely we are a better country than this.

The High Commissioner for Refugees has warned Australians about 'populist explanations ... and fears that are overblown'. He clearly had the Coalition in mind.

One-liners and slogans don't make for a policy that is humane and also protects our borders.


John MenadueJohn Menadue is a founder and Board Director of the Centre for Policy Development. He was formerly Secretary of the Department of Immigration in the Fraser Government 1980–1983. Text is a summary of his speech 'Nauru and the Pacific Solution didn't work before And won't work now', presented at the Australian Institute of International Affairs in Sydney, 6 March 2012. Full text here

Topic tags: John Menadue, Nauru, Tony Abbott, Stop the Boats



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Existing comments

A very unbalanced piece . I agree that the opposition policy has real issues but at least they have a policy and in any case it does not matter , they are not in power . The government on the other hand does matter and they have NO policy to be commented on but that schould not let them and their failure be left Un criticized .'
John crew | 08 March 2012

With respect, John Menadue is missing the point entirely. If more than 50% of the planes that brought asylum seekers to our shores fell out of the sky on the way there'd be reason to stop them as well. By sending a message, Nauru did slow the people smugglers' business model and so moved more unfortunate, desperate souls to safer routes. This was always the intention. It was done to save lives. If you DID get on a people smuggler's boat, you'd be sent to Nauru so your case for asylum had better stack up. And that is exactly what happened. Any talk of cost-benefit analysis is surely irrelevant since it's probable that hundreds of lives were saved.
ian | 08 March 2012

Thanks for the comments and analysis. This issue has disfigured our public life for far too long. I hope the opposition are finally listening.
RFI Smith | 08 March 2012

Thank you for this column. Some time ago The Age described Abbott's Pacific Solution as 'cynical and depressing'. I wrote to The Age: 'It would have been refreshing and welcome if journalists had expressed such disdain for the disgraceful behaviour towards asylum seekers during the Howard years. Most overstayers in this country arrive by plane not by leaking boat..... While we Australians were made to look, before the international community, mean, selfish and even ridiculous by Howard's island-fortress mentality, he was hardly challenged by the Australian media. Now you tell us?' Regrettably, the Gillard crowd have not done much better.
John Nicholson | 08 March 2012

Give this man a job in policy making. Unfortunately, Abbott knows the intellectual abilities of the Australian masses, and appeals to their Ostrich like behaviour very well. Gillard though has failed to create a policy worthy of Ben Chifley and his Davey Safety Lamp image. She has blown the flame out in fact. Now, isn't Scott Morrison one of those Hillsong politicians? You know, a caring Christian with unbounded love for his fellow man? Hang on! Isn't Abbott a caring sharing Christian of deep commitment to the Jesus view of life, albeit one horribly filtered by Rome's corrosive perspective? I don't understand how they are never chided for their unChristian views on the maritime halt, lame and infirm.
janice wallace | 08 March 2012

John Crew, you are dead wrong. The "policy" is the legal adherrence to the provisions 1-34 of the refugee convention which is enshrined in domestic law.

What Abbott and co. are suggesting is illegal as is forcing people to Malaysia.

What people don't seem to understand is that the refugee convention is not negotiable, it is binding law.

The law is and has been for the past 60 years that anyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution.

All our "policy" debate is to try and find ways around that law.
Marilyn Shepherd | 08 March 2012

Do not blame Tony Abbott for the Government's failure to stop illegal immigrants coming to Australia by boat. Blame the Coalition of Greens, Independents and Labor who have a slight majority in the Lower House and a large majority in the Upper House. If the Government fails to produce a good policy call an Election. When Tony Abbot was in Government, they stopped illegal immigrants coming by boats and saved many lives. If some asylum seekers came by air at least, we know who they are; they have passports and other documents. By stopping the boats Australia was able to invite genuine refugees.
Ron Cini | 08 March 2012

How many times does Ron Cini have to be told that there is no such thing as an illegal immigrant in Australia and that being a refugee seeking asylum is completely legal under our law as is catching a boat. This is an island. Hundreds of thousands of people of 14,000 boats come here every year and we beg for more. Millions of Australians take to the seas and rivers on boats every year without a murmur. Cini and co. still live in la la land though and claim after 11 years of being told it is not true that asylum seekers are illegal immigrants.
Marilyn Shepherd | 08 March 2012

Praise the Lord (Jesus Christ),
I happened to marry a Srilankan, in Switzerland who was Muslim.The first pregnancy under the pressure of the Muslim parents of her.With every effort she was compelled to turn back to Islam.With the time she accepted the Lord Jesus
and persecution and threats from the family started and gradually the matter went to the fanatic Muslim. Life threats started pouring in. At last our apartment was put on fire. Thus we had to flee from Switzerland to the usa,where we applied for asylum. The first immigration Judge granted the asylum.But the public persecutor challenged the decision and the 2nd Judge denied.It took 8 years and my children who are now 18 & 15 became fully americanised. Now on 29 March 2012 we are to be deported to Switzerland where the worse is waiting for us. If there is any thing you can do, please GIVE US A CHANCE TO LIVE IN PEACE..We have no other possibility. This a an S O S..
Edwin John | 11 March 2012


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