Parliament Wants A Silver Bullet


Today is one of those days that test the faith of political commentators. The asylum seeker debate in this country is deeply disillusioning. The hypocrisy of the discourse, and the sheer level of disconnection between the facts and the rhetoric, are unmatched in our modern democracy.

The current developments are happening, in surreal juxtaposition, thousands of kilometres away from each other, as more boats full of asylum seekers founder in the waters to Australia’s north, while in Canberra our nation’s elected representatives search their consciences for a way through the impasse.

As I argued on Tuesday, current policy settings regarding seaborne asylum seekers have little to do with "saving lives" and everything to do with the political constraints and media spin that surrounds this issue. It’s not surprising that this should be the case, given that the most politically sensitive aspect of Australian migration policy is boat arrivals, not overall numbers of incoming refugees, or regional issues of development, instability and civil war.

Again, the current debate assumes that Australian government policy can meaningfully deter asylum seekers from getting on boats. That, indeed, was what federal parliamentarians spent six hours agonising over yesterday. The bill before the House, put forward by independent Rob Oakeshott, proposed an amendment to the Migration Act to allow offshore processing, to authorise the Malaysia Solution, to build on the Bali Process for regional refugee processing, and to re-open Nauru.

All of these measures assume that, by framing the right mix of incentives and deterrents, asylum seekers in Indonesia can somehow be persuaded not to risk the dangerous voyage to Christmas Island in a leaky boat.

There’s precious little evidence to support this view. Yesterday I quoted Nick Reimer, who argued here in September last year that "everything suggests that the vast majority of asylum seekers consider the risk of a dangerous ocean crossing well worth taking".

If you need further evidence, this paper by the Lowy Institute’s Khalid Koser is an authoritative examination of the issue. Koser observes that the narrow focus on border protection and detention is unlikely to have any impact on the root causes of the issue, which are the violence and instability in the home countries of those seeking to leave.

Moreover, the whole theory of deterrence rests on a dubious assumption that asylum seekers will find out about the deterrent measures, and act in a rational manner accordingly. Koser writes:

"Governments and international organisations are simply not trusted by the people they are trying to reach; dissemination strategies are often poor, not reaching beyond the capital city for example; there are practical issues concerning translation, illiteracy, and access; and ultimately, if people are fleeing for their lives, they are unlikely to be deterred by a flyer or a poster."

And yet, this belief in the ability of Australian immigration policy to deter people from getting on boats remains the unquestioned bedrock of the asylum seeker debate — with all the tears and drama of yesterday’s parliamentary debate. As a result, politicians have been tying themselves in knots over whether onshore or offshore processing will "solve" the "crisis". But, quite clearly, neither can.

As Western Australian human rights lawyer Sunili Govinnage points out on The Drum today, "onshore processing is not the cause of the boat tragedies. And offshore processing will not cure this ill".

Similarly, the endless rhetoric about the evil of people smugglers and their "business model" also rings false. The transnational movement of people has much in common with the transnational movement of other types of contraband, such as drug trafficking. Vast sums of money have been expended on attempts to crimp the international drug trade, but they have not succeeded, because of the sheer profitability of meeting the vast untapped demand for drugs. People smuggling is driven by similar demand dynamics, so it’s almost certain that smugglers will enter the market to supply it.

There are some worthy aspects of the Oakeshott bill, most notably the commitment to the Bali Process that arose out of the Regional Ministerial Conference on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime that was held in Bali in February 2002. As the Centre for policy Development’s John Menadue pointed out in a speech in March, regional cooperation is the only realistic approach to addressing the issue.

"Australia needs to work constructively with our regional partners to develop comprehensive and durable protection systems along the ‘migration pathway’", Menadue said at the time. The Bali Process is, however, just a process working towards an agreement. It’s still a long way from a coherent and effective regional processing framework.

The Greens have today proposed a policy of increasing the intake of refugees from Indonesia and Malaysia, and creating a pathway for those in those countries to enter Australia safely and legally. "We need to maximise the safety of people that are seeking asylum wherever they may be," Greens leader Christine Milne argued in her press conference this morning.

It’s a step in the right direction and should be supported by the government, because it addresses the source of seaborne asylum seekers at their point of embarkation. However, even the Greens seem to have fallen victim to the silver bullet approach to this problem, issuing a statement today claiming that "if we announced today that we would take several thousand people from Indonesia and told people in the camps that we will give them a safer pathway to a better life, nobody would get onto boats". While laudable, that seems unlikely, for the reasons I discussed on Tuesday.

Senators Milne and Hanson-Young are right, I think, in arguing for greater resourcing for the UNHCR in Indonesia. Milne pointed out that the UNHCR has only two officers on the ground in the camps in that country currently. Considering the vast amounts of treasure expended on Australian border protection, that seems like a good place to begin.

Back in Australia, the politics of this issue remain deeply confused. The repeated focus of the Canberra press gallery on the issue of offshore processing reveals that journalists, just as much as politicians, struggle to understand the underlying dynamics at play.

I expect the Oakeshott bill to fail, in large part because the political advantage of its failure accrues to the Opposition. The politics of asylum seekers run largely in favour of the Liberal and National parties. It’s in Tony Abbott’s narrow political interests to see the continued failure of refugee policy. And, given Abbott’s record so far as opposition leader, you’d have to expect him to continue to act in those narrow interests.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.