Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Don't stoop to stupid policy over boat tragedy

Aloysious Mowe

December 19, 2011

Eureka Street

Almost a year to the day when a boat sank off Christmas Island with horrendous loss of life, yet another asylum seeker tragedy, with an even higher death toll, has occurred. Up to 150 people bound for Australia may have died in the seas off East Java on Saturday.

The familiar refrains of 'Stop the boats', or more elegant variations thereof, inevitably followed.

The Coalition's policy of towing boats back to Indonesia is both immoral and stupid. It puts the lives of asylum seekers at further risk and undermines the professionalism and morale of the Australian Navy. The other oft-bruited policy, off-shore processing, strikes at the heart of the asylum system.

People have a right to seek asylum, and Australia is a signatory to the Refugee Convention which clearly states that those who seek asylum and arrive in a country's territory by irregular means should not be penalised. Let us be clear: off-shore processing puts Australia in breach of its international obligations, and makes laughable the claim that Australia is a nation of laws.

Of course we want people to stop making the hazardous boat journey to Christmas Island, but tow-backs and off-shore processing are blunt instruments that avoid the complexity of the issue.

Asylum seekers who attempt the boat journey to Australia often make their way to Indonesia via Malaysia, or arrive in Indonesia directly from their countries of origin before making the decision to get on a boat. Many try to get their refugee status determined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices in these countries, but the process is long drawn-out, seen to lack transparency, and has no independent review mechanism.

UNHCR is also in a bind: even if it recognises the refugee status of asylum seekers, there are not enough resettlement places for these refugees to take up. While they languish in Malaysia or Indonesia, they are unable to work legally, cannot get an education, face harassment from the authorities, and are readily exploited by unscrupulous employers who know they have few protections.

Senator Doug Cameron's cogent and insightful statement in reaction to Saturday's tragedy bears repeating:

“It doesn't matter what deterrent you put in place, if they are fleeing for their lives, if they don't have a future in the country they're in, then they will take these chances. You can't place enough impediments in the way of asylum seekers who are fleeing death or torture”.

This is a regional problem and requires a regional solution. Australia must engage with the countries through which pass the flows of irregular migrants, explore with them ways to increase the protection space for asylum seekers and refugees in their territories, and share in the cost, so that people are not driven by poor living conditions and lack of legal protection to make desperate journeys.

It should also engage in serious research to find out why people make onward journeys from the countries of first asylum such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

On a recent visit to Indonesia, I met many asylum seekers and refugees. For them, coming to Australia was not always an inevitability, but a solution to a problem that seemed to have no other solutions: where can they be safe, and lead normal lives?

For a young man of 16, waiting two to three years in Indonesia for the refugee status determination and resettlement process to play itself out seems like a lifetime, especially when you cannot get an education and have no other meaningful activities while you wait. Getting on a boat seems like the better option, and the young cannot weigh the risks because they feel they are indestructible.

Many have now learnt, to their cost, that this is not the case.


Aloysious Mowe is Director of Jesuit Refugee Service.