No Advantage And No Courage


Media reports this week have repeated the already well-known fact that asylum seekers arriving by boat are more likely to be assessed as genuine refugees than those arriving by plane. These reports coincide with the passing of the Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Act 2012 which I wrote about in New Matilda last week.

As I made clear then, the words "excision" and "excised" in the existing legislation did not mean that any place had been removed from the migration zone. The migration zone is the part of Australian territory where a non-citizen needs to have a visa to enter or remain. It covers almost all of what is geographically Australia except for territorial seas and a few uninhabited islands in the Antarctic. The poorly-chosen term "excision" used in the 2001 amendments did not mean that a foreigner didn't need a visa to be a "lawful non-citizen" in places like Christmas Island and the other "excised offshore places". It meant that anyone who arrived in such a place without a visa was prevented from applying for one, specifically from applying for a protection (refugee) visa, which otherwise they could apply for anywhere in Australia.

The amended legislation has, thankfully, stopped using the excision terminology. However, it has replaced the geographical restriction with a "transportational" one. Once the amendments come into force (they do not apply retrospectively), asylum seekers arriving by sea anywhere in Australia will be refused the right to apply for protection visas and placed under the government's "no advantage" policy. This will condemn them to an indefinite status as social outcasts, forced to live on less than the miserable unemployment benefit that the Government refused to increase in the Budget, and subject at any time to being scooped up and packed off to a detention camp in Nauru or PNG as soon as a place becomes available.

Okay, let's step back a bit. These are the people most likely (90 per cent or more) to be genuine refugees. Fact — undeniable fact: they are going to stay. There is no way any but a tiny minority of these people will ever find a home anywhere other than Australia. This goes for their children also. Before that happens, they are going to be traumatised and brutalised in the name of… what exactly?

Deterrence? Although the word has been let slip once or twice, the backroom boys and girls in the DIAC legal department know you can't say that. Collective punishment is against international law. Instead the official justification is humanitarian. It's dangerous to get on those boats, you can die. True enough. The problem is you can also die if you don't get on one. While I wouldn't wish to accuse anyone in particular of hypocrisy, the "saving them from drowning" excuse has worn pretty thin, especially because it just hasn't worked. Boat journeys are increasing despite the deterrent (sorry, humanitarian) efforts of the Gillard Government.

While on the subject of dangerous journeys, it is worth considering what those "good" refugees waiting patiently in camps have gone through. For the most part they are "foot people", who chose to make the perilous trek from their homes to the squalor of the camps despite being well aware (as the people coming here by boat are) of the dangers. No one knows how many have died from attacks by bandits or wild animals, starvation, thirst or sheer exhaustion. Should our humanitarian concern require a "no advantage" rule for them also?

The now stark contrast between the treatment of asylum seekers arriving by boat and those arriving by plane has a far more obvious explanation. It is the cowardice of an entire political class, so different from the leaders of the Fraser/Hawke generation. Even the excuses are pathetic. A couple of boats made it through to the mainland, one of them heading for New Zealand anyway. The sheer panic in Canberra can only be described as embarrassing.

And then they have the chutzpah to make Raoul Wallenberg an honorary citizen.

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.