March 2014

A better way on asylum seekers

Is there a way through the present impasse on asylum seekers that is both humane and practicable, asks John Menadue AO.

BY John Menadue AO

Is there a way through the present impasse on asylum seekers that is both humane and practicable?

I suggest there are some areas where we could have a broader discussion and decide what might be acceptable to the Coalition and the ALP. Surely some area of bipartisanship can be found. I suggest there are six areas which we should focus on.

1.  Action in the latter days of the Rudd Government followed by Operation Sovereign Borders has largely stopped boat arrivals. With so few ‘irregular’ arrivals, I suggest we should focus our attention on ‘regular arrivals’ and increase the humanitarian program from 13,750 to 20,000 per annum or more. This would be a useful start. It would demonstrate that the government is prepared to respond to asylum seekers and refugees in need provided they come through ‘regular channels’. (If today we took the same number of refugees that we took during the peak of the Indochina program and adjusted for population increase, our humanitarian/refugee intake would be about 35,000 per annum.) After the Howard Government’s Pacific Solution took effect, the refugee intake was increased from 7,642 in 2000-2001 to 12,247 in 2006-2007, the last year of the Howard Government. In those same years the settler/migrant intake was increased from 107,366 to 140,148. It is clear that having “stopped the boats” as the Howard Government told us, they then considerably increased both the humanitarian and migrant intake. We should do the same again.

2.  Many Australians are concerned about the recent death and injuries on Manus Island and earlier on Nauru. It seems that asylum seekers were attacked by thugs within the detention centre on Manus. That is extraordinary and reflects on every Australian. A man has been killed in our name. We have a moral responsibility for any asylum seeker who comes to Australia and then is transferred to another country. To clarify the situation, I suggest that our moral responsibility should be strengthened by establishing a clear legal responsibility as well. We could do this by amending the Migration Act to ensure that there is “effective protection” which is enforceable under Australian statute for any person that we transfer to another country. It would provide a discipline which is clearly lacking at the moment. “Effective protection” enforceable in Australian courts would need to be spelled out in the Migration Act to include such issues as non-refoulement, legal status when in another country, humane treatment consistent with the dignity and safety of the individual, and swift and efficient processing of claims. Surely the Coalition and the ALP could agree on “effective protection” when asylum seekers are transferred to another country. The UNHCR should be asked to monitor “effective protection”.

3.  We need to address persecution and discrimination in source countries by negotiating Orderly Departure Arrangements (ODAs) with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Many asylum seekers coming to Australia come from these countries. We negotiated an ODA with Vietnam in 1983 whereby 100,000 Vietnamese came to Australia over many years instead of taking dangerous and irregular travel by land and sea. The Hazaras in Afghanistan and Pakistan desperately need our help through an ODA.

4.  We should consider other migration pathways that would reduce pressure on people fleeing their countries. The largest number of asylum seekers coming by boat before the clamp down were Iranians. I suggest that we should look at 457 visas or other migration pathways for young people from Iran. They would be great settlers.

5.  We need to address the plight of over 30,000 asylum seekers on Manus Island, Nauru, in our detention centres and in the community whose refugee status has not yet been assessed. Immigration detention centres are very expensive and damaging to the individual. More asylum seekers should be carefully released into the community under bridging visas whilst their claims are being assessed. Most countries do this. In 2005 the Howard Government introduced the Community Care Pilot Scheme to assist asylum seekers in the community. Its focus was on case management. This pilot scheme became the Community Assistance Support (CAS) program and has worked well for asylum seekers in the community. Unfortunately a hostile political climate has made governments wary of developing the scheme. CAS should now be expanded. Further, as asylum seekers are released into the community, they should have the right to work. It is important both for their dignity as well as being in the interest of the Australian taxpayer. Surely the major political parties could agree on this. We have seen how country businesses like meatworks and fruit picking have welcomed asylum seekers.

6.  The only viable long-term solution to desperate people taking risks in coming to Australia is through regional processing in transit countries, particularly in Indonesia, with the co-operation of the UNHCR. We must bend our backs to do that. Julie Bishop would have an interest in this as it would help generate good will in our relations with Indonesia. We also need to build better relations with UNHCR.

Surely we can find some bipartisan common ground in these six areas. The above suggestions are far from ideal, but they would be a substantial improvement on the awful situation we find ourselves in today.

This article is an edited version of a piece first published on John’s blog “Pearls and Irritations”.

John Menadue

John Menadue AO has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and the public service. Among his many roles, John served as Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (1980 to 1983) and as Australian Ambassador to Japan (1976 to 1980). He is a founder and fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.

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