Paris Aristotle on the Asylum Seeker Expert Panel Report

André Dao in conversation with Paris Aristotle
Aerial photo of Nauru
Paris Aristotle AM is the Director of the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture Inc (also known as Foundation House), a position he has held since helped found the organisation in 1987. He was recently a member of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, and spoke at a Castan Centre event with The Age’s Michael Gordon about the Expert Panel’s report (full video). Our Editor-in-Chief André Dao caught up with Paris before the event to ask him a few questions.


Right Now: How would you describe the experience of serving on the Expert Panel?

Paris Aristotle: It’s a pretty intense experience. It’s one that was always going to be fraught with difficulties given the highly politicised nature of the issue and the very different and strongly held views across all of the spectrums about what should or shouldn’t be done. So it was very challenging on all of those fronts.

There’s a legitimate ethical dilemma: should Australia prevent it or should they not? We came down on the side that there are too many people dying and that we should put measures in to discourage that.

Getting on boats is a risky venture but the asylum seekers are aware of the risk – is it really Australia’s responsibility to prevent these voyages?

Well, I think that’s one of the ethical questions. I think Australia can’t prevent people from seeking protection. If it wants to do things to prevent people from risking their lives and drowning then it needs to establish an alternative pathway that people can pursue. And the simple piece of the report is actually about producing that alternative pathway so that people don’t have to risk their lives. But I should say in addition to that, there’s a legitimate ethical dilemma: should Australia prevent it or should they not? We came down on the side that there are too many people dying and that we should put measures in to discourage that. Others believe we shouldn’t put measures in to discourage it but the next part of that is that people need to also acknowledge that that part of what is a horrible choice between two difficult things means accepting that more and more people will die as a consequence. So I think people need to be realistic about the outcomes from the decisions that are taken.

It’s important that large numbers of people can’t just go around it and circumvent that process, otherwise it’s not fair to all of those other people in the region who are going through that process. So the no advantage principle applies to that.

Won’t “stopping the boats” only stop deaths at sea, and cause people to take other risks in their desperation to seek security?

I understand people have made that comment. I’m not sure why that’s relevant to whether or not we should do what we can to prevent people from having to die seeking protection and providing them with a better alternative pathway. I don’t see that as being a contradiction to the other point. I see it as being essential. I think it’s tragic that people seeking protection have to take risks in all sorts of other circumstances. We don’t have the capacity to deal with all of those other circumstances but where we do have a capacity to deal with it then the power came down on the side that believing we should at least try.

Are you worried about the implications of a strict “no advantage” policy?

Depends what people mean by no advantage policy. From our perspective, it was simply about saying that we should invest in a safer regional pathway for people to be processed and to receive the protection they need in a timely way. The no advantage principle was basically saying to go… for that to work it’s important that large numbers of people can’t just go around it and circumvent that process, otherwise it’s not fair to all of those other people in the region who are going through that process. So the no advantage principle applies to that. It’s not really a time question. The length of time doesn’t matter, it’s really saying don’t spend the money, don’t risk your life, stay where you are, we’ll build the system that will get to you and provide you with a durable outcome.

Are you optimistic about regional cooperation on this issue after the Panel’s consultations?

I’m optimistic that we are in the best position that we’ve ever been in to put together a set of regional arrangements that could make a real and tangible difference. I think increasing the quota to 20,000 places, adding 4,000 family reunion places to the migration stream, 70 million dollars for capacity building…UNHCR, civil society groups, NGOs, to help care for and assist people while they’re going through the process. Progress of the Bali process. All of those things coming together give me a great deal of hope. It’s not going to be easy, it’ll be be complex and it will probably get knocked about a bit. But we have to start from somewhere and wherever we start from will be less than ideal. But until we start things won’t improve.

And of all those recommendations are you disappointed that the government has chosen to act first on offshore processing?

Well it’s disappointing that Nauru and Manus, which were short-term circuit break options to try and discourage people from risking their lives, was what got all the attention and of course it was misrepresented throughout the press as being a return to the Howard-era and Pacific Solution. There’s none of that, it’s entirely different to what happened before. There’ll be legal assistance available, there’ll be oversight monitoring, there’ll be a review mechanism, there’ll be a full sweep of services and there’ll be the capacity to bring people off if it’s necessary to do so. None of that existed before, let alone 20,000 additional… 20,000 places in our humanitarian program. So on that basis it’s different but it is annoying that the political debate means that that’s what gets the focus. But since they have announced they have increased the quota to 20,000 places they’ve made an initial down payment for 10 million dollars for regional capacity building, with the commitment to continue to increase that to the 70 million. And they’ve provided additional funding for research and analysis on this issue which was absent up until now. They’ve also removed the mandatory sentencing arrangements for crews of boats…poor Indonesian fisherman who are crewing boats, which is a very positive thing as well. So, while it was on one level irritating that Nauru and Manus got all the attention in the first week, I think we’re starting to see progress on the other recommendations as well.

Which recommendation do you think should be the Government’s next highest priority?

Look the most important which the government has actually already initiated…and we’ve begun having meetings with NGOs, government officials and UNHCR last week about was how to deal with the increase quota and develop the regional capacity to process cases better, with more safety and security for people that can generate a durable outcome that doesn’t involve them risking their lives.

Did you have enough time to address the terms of reference adequately?

Well six weeks was an incredibly tight time-frame, there’s obviously a lot of detail that needs to be fleshed out and worked through with regards to the recommendations. In six weeks we didn’t have time to do that but it was enough time to put together a broad set of principles and recommendations that should be able to provide the impetus and the beginnings of a better approach to it. This territory has been gone over a lot. There was a lot… there weren’t lots of new ideas that were presented at all. It was really a matter of trying to assess what was available in front of us and construct a package that we believed would deal with the full range of the Terms of Reference over time.

And where do you go from here?

We’ve already begun working on that…been convening meetings in Melbourne…in Canberra with non-government agencies, civil society groups, UNHCR, Department of Immigration, AusAID, we’ve been talking about how best to utilise that 10 million dollars, where to target the humanitarian places, we’ve talked about what sort of legal determination…refugee status determination system should be developed for Nauru and Manus, what appeal mechanism. And we’ve begun talking about the oversight and monitoring mechanisms. All of those things really provide the sort of safeguards to hopefully prevent the sorts of things that happened last time in terms of pretty severe mental health consequences for people from happening again.


Brolgas art work by Phoebe McIlwraith

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