Wednesday, July 11, 2012


SICK of SPIN - Here is an experts view. From Pamela Curr, 10.7.12

AS the dust settles following the parliament's emotionally charged debate on refugee policy, several points have emerged with considerable clarity.

First, Rob Oakeshott's proposal that the Immigration Minister be authorised to send asylum-seekers to countries that are parties to the so-called "Bali Process" is a non-starter. This is no bad thing. North Korea and Syria are both parties to the Bali Process, and any proposal that in principle would allow people to be dispatched to such hell-holes is clearly absurd.

Second, the Gillard government's "Malaysia Solution" has hit a dead-end, too. The Greens are not going to shift from their implacable hostility to "offshore processing". More seriously, the opposition leadership team is plainly not going to alter its position either and, while its stance carries a strong whiff of opportunism, the opposition happens to be right that there are huge dangers in transporting vulnerable asylum-seekers by force to a country that is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and in which (as the High Court emphasised last year) the "protections" that would be offered to such asylum-seekers have no legal force.

Where does this leave us? The opposition's answer is obvious: Nauru. It worked in the past, they claim, and will work again. Unfortunately, this assertion is spurious. The seeming "success" of the Pacific Solution had much more to do with the evaporation of "push factors" in Afghanistan when the Taliban regime was overthrown in Operation Enduring Freedom in November 2001, and those push factors have come surging back with the Taliban's re-emergence. There is no sign they will disappear any time soon.

Furthermore, large numbers of those consigned to Nauru came to Australia, with most of the others resettled in New Zealand. Because this is known to have happened last time Nauru was used, its credibility as a deterrent is weak. In any case, if the situation in Afghanistan takes a further turn for the worse, we could easily witness refugee flows that would quickly overwhelm Nauru. And while a few small countries might be bribed to take refugees who have reached Australia, no major party to the 1951 convention will agree to do so.

To mask this rather obvious point, the opposition has mooted two measures: the resumption of the use of "temporary protection visas" (TPVs), and the forced return of boats to Indonesia. Anyone who would buy this as serious policy is gullible enough to be sold the Brooklyn Bridge.

From almost every conceivable viewpoint, the promotion of TPVs is a foolish idea. First proposed by Pauline Hanson, and introduced in 1999, they had no discernible effect on the disposition of asylum-seekers to approach Australia for protection. Since one of the visa conditions was that TPV holders could not sponsor spouses and young children to join them, a new market was created for the services that people-smugglers were trying to sell: it was almost as if the smugglers and the Australian government were in cahoots. The psychological effects, moreover, were devastating: unable to get on with their lives, TPV holders all too often buckled under the stress, succumbing to mental health problems with which the health system will have to cope at considerable cost for years to come. While permanent protection is not explicitly required by the 1951 convention, in a world of sensible policymaking, temporary protection should be used only in very limited and specific circumstances, where safe return of refugees to their homes is likely to occur within a matter of weeks or months.

Trying to turn boats around is just as foolish. Refugee boats tend to be ramshackle structures, and attempting to turn them back is a recipe for a disaster. Moreover, such a high-handed approach by Australia would imperil the prospects of even modest co-operation from Jakarta and other regional capitals in addressing asylum-seeker issues. Their response to arrogance from Canberra would probably be to let any boats sail that the smugglers could find.

Refugee problems are complex, and cannot be solved by pulling rabbits out of hats. "Deterrence" on its own is simply a device for ensuring refugees drown in the Mediterranean rather than in our neighbourhood.

Attention to root causes, and serious regional co-operation, is the only way of ameliorating the asylum-seeker problem. Herein lies the rub. If regional states are to become venues for processing refugee claims from asylum-seekers who would otherwise approach Australia, then Australia will have to agree to resettle really large numbers of refugees, primarily Afghans fearing the return of the Taliban, from those states. This will cost more money -- at which point we will discover how much our MPs and senators really care about saving lives at sea.

Professor William Maley is Director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University, and author of Rescuing Afghanistan.