Friday, December 24, 2010

Cruel to be kind: could John Howard have got it right on asylum seekers?

Recently, a boat carrying asylum seekers bound for Australia crashed off Christmas Island, resulting in the deaths of 28 people. It was not the first time that asylum seekers have died en route to Australia; in 2009 approximately 54 died that way. Some have estimated that as many as 170 have perished way in the last 3 years.

It's hard not to notice a correlation between the party in power in Australia, and the number of people-smuggling boats headed for our shores. Upon assuming the mantle of PM in late 2007, Labor's Kevin Rudd scrapped many of the controversial policies of his predecessor John Howard relating to asylum seekers. At that point, boat numbers began to rise markedly.

Was Rudd right to scrap these policies? Howard's "Pacific Solution" meant that boats were intercepted en route to Australia and diverted to offshore processing (detention) centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. In addition, the TPV (Temporary Protection Visa) was introduced, which greatly limited the rights of those successfully applying for asylum and made it more difficult to obtain a permanent visa to settle in Australia.

Howard's policies were widely condemned as overly punitive and unfair, and it is easy to regard Labor as having done the humane thing by scrapping them. Yet the number of attempted arrivals by boat since then seems to indicate that the Pacific Solution carried with it a significant deterrent effect, one which no longer exists. Labor's more humane approach has arguably led to more people putting themselves at risk on the high seas, and thus more deaths. So is it really more humane?

Mind you, no one should be deluded into thinking that Coalition policy under John Howard was motivated by humanitarian concerns, at least to any significant degree. Primarily it was geared to paint Howard as a strong leader who would protect Australia from an invading rabble. A case in point was the tactical switch in language, moving away from the term "asylum seekers" to the much more loaded "illegal immigrants" or simply just "illegals". It helped that so many of the asylum seekers were from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, at a time when fear of Muslims was high. Howard harnessed a wave of xenophobia and rode it all the way to re-election.

From a human rights perspective, it was bad, ugly policy. But in terms of a body count, Howard seems to come out looking better than the more "humane" Labor Party. So was he right, and all the bleeding-heart lefties wrong?

Well, yes and no. Between two flawed policies, Howard's cruel policy appears better, a vindication of the conservative ideal that sometimes it's kinder in the long run not to be too kind. But was Howard's policy a good policy? Not really.

One of the Coalition's unequivocally stated goals has been their repeated slogan Stop the Boats. While the motivation behind this was far from altruistic, it was a worthwhile aim, and one that the Left was too soft on. Asylum seekers heading to Australia on boats = virtually inevitable casualties. But the Coalition's methods for achieving this goal were cruel and unfair. So is it possible to find a third way? A course of action that will mean no unnecessary loss of life trying to get to Australia, yet will not punish those seeking asylum?

One of the terms frequently tossed around by conservatives in this debate is "queue-jumpers". In other words, those who come by boat are unfairly subverting the process, and sneaking in ahead of those back in Indonesia and elsewhere who are applying via legal means. While this is in many ways true, it doesn't mean that the "queue-jumpers" do not have legitimate claims to refugee status. And more significantly, talking of "queue-jumpers" conjures images of an orderly system for applying that actually works properly. The reality is that the system of processing asylum seekers is so slow and inefficient that it almost inevitably leads to the conditions that encourage people to look for less legal means.

Any policy designed to tackle the problem of unauthorised arrivals needs to start back in Indonesia, and other locations from which refugees can apply for asylum. There is no sense in insisting desperate dislocated people wait patiently and adhere to a dysfunctional system. Australia needs to work closely with the UN and other countries in the region to get refugees processed quickly and fairly, and then sent to a safe country (not necessarily Australia). Deterrent measures are necessary too, primarily targeted at people smugglers.

If we are going to insist that asylum seekers play by the rules of our system, we need to make damn sure that the system actually works.

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