Labor Learned Nothing From Howard


Here we go again! Labor, in an effort to try to prove it is as tough as the Howard government on refugees and asylum seekers, is preparing to do a double back flip that would make an Olympic diver proud.

Minister for Immigration Chris Bowen admits it’s a backflip. He says he is changing party policy to allow for the excision of the whole of the Australian mainland, including presumably Tasmania and Macquarie Island, just in case any asylum seeker boat ever gets there. He must not be reading the same party policy as I am. The National Conference Platform adopted at the National Conference of the ALP in 2011 included the following statements in Chapter 9, A Fair Go for all Australians:

"26. Labor believes a Human Rights Framework that reflects our international obligations is necessary in reflecting our commitment to fundamental rights across social and economic policies.

We are committed to promoting the awareness and understanding of human rights, supporting the international human rights instruments to which Australia is a signatory, and properly funding the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Labor will adhere to Australia’s international human rights obligations and will seek to have them incorporated into the domestic law of Australia, and have them taken into account in administrative decision-making and whenever new laws and policies are developed."

The National Conference committed us to the Refugee Convention, its values, principles and commitments. It hasn’t met again to revoke this decision. That is how party policy is changed — not at the whim of a minister who is being badly advised by his department. Nor is party policy changed by the perceived demands of a party struggling to drag itself out of the mire of the polls.

But National Conference Policy, to its shame, and because Labor for Refugees could not convince delegates to vote these provisions down, also states:

"153. To support Australia’s strong border security regime, Labor will maintain:

• an architecture of excised offshore places
• the non-statutory processing on Christmas Island of persons who arrive unauthorised at an excised place, except where other arrangements are entered into under bilateral and regional arrangements.

Labor is united in its commitment to prevent further loss of life at sea of vulnerable children, women and men… Such arrangements will result in asylum seekers who arrive both by air and sea being treated the same when it comes to the processing of their claims and access to support while on bridging visas."

Now we know what that "architecture of excised offshore places" and the "bilateral and regional arrangements" really means. Those clauses are supposed to be read in the context of the whole document — but obviously there is some fundamentalist interpretation of the National Conference Platform being undertaken in Canberra.

But note the last sentence. While the Minister several months ago said that those who arrive by air and those who arrive by sea will be treated equally, we are not doing that. We are now going to send those who arrive by sea directly to Nauru and Manus Island, with virtually no legal resources to process their rightful claim for asylum in Australia. Limited internet access for asylum seekers on Nauru — because there are not enough computers — does not allow for the fair preparation of a claim for asylum.

There is another way.

Labor for Refugees recently made a submission to the Houston Panel which set out the following principles as a guide for government action:

• Genuine concern and compassion for the wellbeing and future of asylum seekers who come by boat; alternatives to "dangerous journeys" should not be driven by political considerations. That people are willing to risk their lives in such circumstances is an indicator of desperation. Policy should not be simply motivated by border control and exclusion but a genuine desire to find safer alternatives for people in need of protection.

• Respect for the integrity of the Refugee Convention and the international protection frameworks and compliance with Australia’s legal obligations under the convention and complementary protection legislation

• Respect for the time-honoured maritime principle of rescue at sea above all other considerations. Preservation of lives and prevention of tragedies requires constant vigilance on the part of Australia, in collaboration with Indonesia. Given Australia’s superior capabilities for surveillance and rescue, it is essential that the Australian Maritime and Safety Authority take the lead role rather than relying on the lesser resources of Indonesian maritime authorities in responding to vessels in distress en route to Australia.

• Recognition that punitive policies targeting asylum seekers arriving by boat are contrary to the Refugee Convention by discriminating on the basis of mode of entry.

• Recognition of the profound psychological harm caused to asylum seekers found to be refugees of harsh deterrence policies including offshore internment in remote Nauru and Manus Island and Temporary Protection Visas.

• Recognition of compelling "push" factors including internal conflict and human rights abuses that influence the decision to seek irregular access to Australia’s protection frameworks from source countries such as Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Burma.

• Recognition that the vast majority of asylum seekers who come by boat are found to be in need of protection and are therefore by definition, vulnerable people who have experienced trauma.

• Recognition of the very limited options for asylum seekers in Indonesia and Malaysia in being resettled permanently within a reasonable time-frame; that pathways to resettlement are not well established and supported in the region.

• Recognition that while it is desirable for Australia to control entry, it will not always be possible to achieve this in the context of world-wide forced migration movements.

• Recognition that Australian Government policies such as severe restrictions on refugee family reunion contribute to the number of irregular arrivals.

• That the Bali Process should involve genuine engagement and collaboration with countries of the region aimed at addressing the needs and human rights of asylum seekers and refugees, and raising the standards for protection within the region.

The most ridiculous consequence of all of this is that the Government is failing to stop the boats. Surely the test of any government policy or strategy should be, is it working? So what next?

We need to immediately establish pathways to resettlement from Indonesia. Over the period 2001-2010, Australia has accepted only 56 refugees from Indonesia per year, and only 24 in the past six months. This is despite Indonesia being the primary exit point for boats of asylum seekers to Australia and despite the fact that there are currently 4239 refugees in Indonesia awaiting resettlement. Lack of formal pathways to resettlement is directly contributing to irregular arrivals.

Labor for Refugees recommended to the Houston Panel that 2000 places be allocated annually to resettlement from Indonesia. This would effectively create a queue for resettlement in Australia.

Australia needs to assist with the processing of refugees in Indonesia and the region. This should include increased funding to the UNHCR in Indonesia in particular and processing of applications by the Australian Embassy, with staff preparing reports assessing claims which could then be sent to Immigration for completion. This may necessitate increased staffing levels at the Embassy, with costs offset against a reduction in processing costs on Christmas Island.

We need to assist the UNHCR with the processing of refugees in Indonesia. There were until recently only two people in Indonesia processing refugees, with UNHCR funding expected to be halved over the next few years. If we are serious about stopping people getting on unsafe boats, we need to increase funding to UNHCR and have more people processed in Indonesia, so refugees can see that they will have their claims heard, for free, rather than paying large sums to people smugglers.

Most importantly, as Labor for Refugees in its submission to the Houston Panel emphasised, it is crucial that we learn from the experience of offshore processing and TPVs under the Howard years. If we are genuinely concerned for the welfare of asylum seekers, these policies should not be reintroduced. The so-called Pacific Solution was high cost not only to the Australian taxpayer but in terms of adverse impacts on asylum seekers, most of whom qualified as refugees. The experience of incarceration in remote detention camps re-traumatised these vulnerable people, the majority of whom eventually resettled in Australia.

Can Labor learn? Not if the parliamentary party does not listen to its own party policy making forums. Making policy on the run does not good policy or good government make! If it is obvious that a policy or strategy is not working, then it is time to change direction and implement strategies that can work.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.