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Trading fears for tears in complex asylum seeker debate

  • 11 July 2012

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,