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Trading fears for tears in complex asylum seeker debate


When the Australian senate failed to pass the Oakeshott bill before the parliamentary winter break, many observers were quick to lambast the Greens for opposing it.

During those emotionally charged few days, a law enabling federal government to transfer asylum seekers to third countries somehow took hold in the public imagination as the best way to keep people from drowning. The rejection of the bill was thus seen as a failure of politics or even a moral failure.

But in exposing the difficulty of crafting a morally coherent and legal response to seaborne asylum seekers, the debate probably served the issue better than the assorted catchphrases peddled by federal leaders on both sides. We may finally be grappling with the nuances of a situation that has always been complex and broad.

This is evidenced by the astonishing tear-shedding in both parliamentary houses over people drowning near our northwest coast (as if no boat had previously capsized there). It was a peculiar but important reversal in a decade that has seen asylum seekers demonised and psychologically brutalised by our policymakers.

The reversal is so palpable as to be nearly comical: asylum seekers, it turns out, are human beings to whom we have obligations. It illustrates how poorly the question of asylum has been discussed since 2001.

It was sentimental behaviour, of course, but some spark of leadership may be detected. Elected officials finally signalled to the public that such deaths are not negligible — that we must reckon with the desperation that puts people into boats. We can only hope parliamentarians will be able to hold on to their belated compassion when sitting resumes next month.

We can also hope they will return with cooler heads to consider how partnerships may be cultivated in the region to address asylum seeker movements separately from people smuggling.

The recent debate should have alerted them to this distinction. There is no sense in discussing offshore processing without a multilateral framework in place that disentangles the right to asylum from people smuggling. By now our legislators should already be educated on the nature of this right: it is not negotiable, deferrable, or conditional on the circumstances in which it is claimed.

Asylum, not deterrence, should always have been the starting point for discussion about boat arrivals. This is why the problem-solution approach ultimately fails: the wrong problems keep being identified. If anything good is to come out of the debate over the Oakeshott bill, it would be the shedding of an insular mindset that fixates on border control, people smuggling, and deaths at sea as problems requiring domestic legislation.

The real question — and the deeper problem to which all these issues may be traced — is how to respond to hundreds of thousands of people in our region needing long-term solutions to their displacement.

It is a complex challenge that must be treated as such. A Lowy Institute analysis in 2010 pointed to a comprehensive approach, including 'capacity-building in origin and transit states; engagement with international efforts to address root causes in primary origin countries ... and building partnerships including through consultation with civil society within the state and cooperation with other states in the region'.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, a civil society organisation in Australia with considerable grassroots experience and expertise, has made a submission to the expert panel convened by Prime Minister Gillard in the wake of the Oakeshott bill.

The submission includes emergency measures such as the immediate resettlement of a combined 5000 assessed and approved refugees in Indonesia and Malaysia, and increasing our refugee intake to 25,000, with a significant portion to be taken from within the region.

It also sets out long term measures: pursuing a regional refugee protection framework underpinned by the Refugee Convention; supporting reforms in countries in the region including granting legal status to refugees and asylum seekers, affording right of stay, work permission, and protection against arrest, detention and deportation; establishing a formal multi-party parliamentary committee to begin 'the process of de- politicisation of the issue'; increasing funding to the UNHCR and regional neighbours to build capacity for human rights protection; and formally instituting community processing as an alternative to detention centres.

These are patently challenging pursuits because they introduce variables beyond our control, such as the pace and cost of reforms in the region. But there have always been variables beyond our control, including but not limited to the dire conditions that compel people to leave their homeland in the first place.

It is time for Australia to lead on this issue instead of working from behind through ad hoc bilateral agreements like the Malaysia solution. It is also time to let go of the idea that we can somehow turn the tide of humanity. In a world where humanitarian space is shrinking, we cannot long deny our part when 15.4 million refugees need to be resettled, when violent conflicts continue to simmer.

It is complicated business and approaching it as such will test our national maturity. When parliament resumes — aptly, the spring sitting — we will see who is ready to grow and who will remain stunted.

Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based writer, and tweeter.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Rob Oakshott, Malaysia Solution, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Thank you Fatima for such a timely and relevant analysis. The sad thing is the absence of political leadership and imagination in a world on the abyss of catastrophic change. The signs of the times suggest an immanent collapse of global capitalism that has been built on speculative greed and where the leading sectors of economic growth have been the arms trade and the trade in carbon leading to global warming and rising sea levels. To approach the refugee question as one of "stop the boats and process offshore" fails the test of healing the source crises behind the flow of refugees. It also fails to build up resilience and sustainability in our own political economy. As your article states it is time to lead and the Church's voice needs to be heard more loudly on the underlying causes of the "refugee crisis".

Roger | 11 July 2012  

Thanks to Ms Measham for this balanced and sensible article. This kind of analysis blows like a clean, sweet breeze through the shame of our national response to the misery of others. Yes, perhaps we really have come a long way since the 'Children Overboard' lie that was powerful enough to swing the electorate to return the Howard Government in 2001 - or at least some of us have come some of the way. But the ugliness of the current response in the electorate and on both sides of politics is still swamping our sense of decency and responsibility towards the deperate people who are fleeing for their lives in their millions. I will be very interested to see the response to your article. No doubt there will be displays of ignorance and naked selfishness, and name-calling, of course. I hope I'm wrong about this.

Kate Ahearne | 11 July 2012  

I am more convinced that the “Green” in the Green Party comes from green as slime and green with envy. Bob Brown and his mindless followers in the Green Party would have known that their action would lead to more tragedies. I think for Green Senators to pretend to cry in Parliament is the worst kind of hypocrisy I ever seen. The Greens are excellent politicians and they have managed to divide Australia on issues such as the environment and care for the less fortunate, but they are bad actors.

Beat Odermatt | 11 July 2012  

agree with what you say, but much of what you call for is beyond australia's control and other countries in the region are already being encouraged to take those steps. Australia can't just force other countries to take the actions we want them to. Much does go on beyond the public debate, and it is in those diplomatic spaces that much of the change occurs. Malaysia has taken steps towards providing better rights for refugees in recent years and international ngos have been working hard on these issues. It is a much more complex situation than anyone will admit, even those on the refugee support side

monday | 11 July 2012  

Fatima, I, too, found the tears extraordinary, an amazing turn-around that there are tears for people previously vilified. Yes, the reversal is almost comical, but oh so much better than more of the hate-filled politically opportunistically cynical same. Thank you for your summary of the things out country could do to work towards humanitarian solutions. And let us pray that the expert panel carefully readsand absorbs the submission from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

Janet | 11 July 2012  

Of course Australia should welcome refugees - and err on the side of generosity when trying to distinguish between genuine refugees and the clients of 'people smugglers'. Sadly, even if 'people smuggling' is eliminated, it is likely that only a fraction of those who are ill-treated and deserve to be welcomed have the opportunity or the money to escape. As part of the world community Australia should do its part in eliminating the persecution or ill-treatment at its source. More activity by a strengthened United Nations may be part of the solution to this challenge.

Bob Corcoran | 11 July 2012  

It may be enlightening for Beat Odermatt, and those of his persuasion to actually read for themselves Greens long-standing policy on asylum seekers. What you will find is that Fatima Measham has largely echoed this policy. At no time have the Greens ever vilified, demonised or falsely labelled as "illegal" asylum seekers for venal political gain, as have both of the "major parties". Bob Brown, as the sole federal Greens senator in 2001, at the time of the Tampa disgrace during which both major parties lied at asylum seekers cost to an Australian public all too eager to accept such lies (Howard went on to win an election on the back of it), was the only voice in parliament denouncing our attitude towards and illegal treatment of asylum seekers. Nothing has changed. The tears of Sarah Hanson-Young are not crocodile tears, nor tears of belated guilt over repeated acts and words of inhumanity. They are tears of shame and frustration at the nasty intransigience and inhumane dishonesty and cowardice of Tony Abbott's coalition, and Julia Gillard's ALP.

Michelle Goldsmith | 11 July 2012  

Fatima, thanks for this timely and incisive summary of the policy platform which neither of the two major parties seems capable of embracing. Yet, it helps to remember that in the early 1980s, the main elements of your proposal were indeed well understood by both the government and opposition of Australia. The quality and integrity of their bipartisan political leadership was most effective in our managing of the Indo China Orderly Departure program. Many sectors of community life (especially the churches) gave strong participation. They embraced the government's leadership. We need to keep reminding federal MPs and Senators (especially ALP and Coalition) of this and insisting that they lift their game.

Wayne Sanderson | 11 July 2012  

I came across this quote from Thomas Merton yesterday, and it made me think of this issue: 'Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody's business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.'

Michael McVeigh | 11 July 2012  

A point beautifully made, Michael. Here we have a Christian response which Tony Abbott would do well to ponder deeply. Fatima, the clarity of your discussion should persuade all Australians with heart, conscience and common sense.

Anne Doyle | 11 July 2012  

It's not all that complex. Return to the policy John Howard had in place and the numbers of boat people will drop, along with the numbers of boat-related fatalities. We could then afford to take in a higher number of genuine refugees - those who don't jettison their papers as soon as they land in Indonesia - through the front door. We would fly them here safely. We can't (hopefully) change the pull factors: Australia is a great place to live - even under this appalling federal government. Despite their best efforts over the past few year it's still basically a peaceable, free-market, rule-of-law Christian society. We know that, and so does everyone else. The people trying to get here are not fundamentally "refugees" or "asylum seekers". They're just ordinary people rationally taking a chance at obtaining a better life. That's why, once they get to Indonesia or Malaysia, 99 percent of them want to move on to Australia - the jewel in the crown. We should determine how many we can take in in a generous fashion. But the fact is that half the world would line up to come here tomorrow if we cluelessly gave it the chance - at least, until we took in so many that our own living standards plummeted to third world levels. Howard was right. Once we control our borders, we can afford to be, and should be, generous. On our own terms.

HH | 11 July 2012  

The grand self important delusion we have in this country that us punishing 0.0001% of the world's refugees will make a jot of difference has to stop.

Marilyn | 11 July 2012  

Marilyn has raised a good stats issue. Fair enough. Here's my reflection. Most of the world's 50-odd million refugees and displaced peoples are not ultimately striving to get into places like Somalia, Burkina Faso, China, Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea or even Indonesia, Malaysia or India. Or, AFAIK, into the remote aboriginal communities in Australia. ie: totally failed states, failed leftist nirvanas, or even failed statist regimes that are at last significantly climbing out of statism into a decent degree of free enterprise. If we look at demonstrated preferences, these good people are - very sensibly - trying to get into: (mainstream) Australia (current population about 22 million), Europe, the U.S., the UK, and Canada. Oh, and Hong Kong (not the other little bit of China). In sum, that is, they're making for the OLD CHRISTIAN WEST and its scions (The West that the ABC and our religious liberal media are hell bent - pun intended - on belittling and dismantling.), which respects natural rights, private property, the rule of law, and freedom of speech: ie a prizing of the individual human person's fundamental dignity. In other words - dare I say it here : capitalism!(at least as it has been experienced so far). Think about that for more than a split second. And think more about the fact that, if Australia chooses to continue relaxing its entry criteria, there'll be a heck of a lot more than merely 50 million - very sensible - earthians interested relocating to our "desert" continent. Now, I'm in no doubt ultimately we could cope, and flourish, if they all adhered to the wonderful principles that make us so attractive, and a few of the lefties among us reverted to the same. After all, history has proved that under Christian/capitalist principles, every human individual is an incredibly creative, net producer. (Exhibit A: Hong Kong) But if leftist principles inform our regime with this influx, or even indeed if we excluded everyone, what hope do we have? So I strongly sympathise with Marilyn's fundamental point, as an aged, unashamed Catholic capitalist.

HH | 12 July 2012  

HH there is really only a quite moderate number of asylum seekers coming to Australia. Did you not know that all of these people seeking refuge are interviewed (even though rather slowly) and as far as I have found are mostly ultimately accepted as citizens. As the saying goes, what's not to like about showing compassion and care to those who come for help? And No, we are not a truly Christian country but one of many faiths. However, I do think it's not a bad idea to ask "What would Jesus have done?"

Mary Maraz | 13 July 2012  

Mary, excuse me, but could you identify for me which of the those who had significant input into Australia's constitution, and the constitutions of the federating colonies, was a Buddhist, Shintoist, Hindu, atheist, Mahommedan, animist, or other form of non-Christian, and how their specifically non-Christian views informed our legal/political culture? Whatever our mix today, we are in our institutions and culture still markedly of the Old Christian West. Let's hope that continues, and in fact intensifies, as I'm sure Christ our King Himself desires.

HH | 13 July 2012  

In these days of the Olympics, let it be noted that, much as I abhor the inhumane anarchy in our current boat people policy, I'd much prefer my tax dollars to go to genuine asylum seekers, refugees and deserving poor people in general, than to sport or art.

HH | 28 July 2012  

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