5 reasons not to give up – the refugee activists’ guide to debunking Rudd’s policy to “save lives”

By Roxanne Moore and Alexandra Scott | 24 Jul 13

By Roxanne Moore and Alexandra Scott.

We cheered when Rudd abolished Temporary Protection Visas. We celebrated when Rudd ended the Pacific Solution. His return to power restored our hope… then suddenly – BAM – hello Darkness, my old friend. Now what?

This shrewd policy has left most of us in despair, grasping at arguments which seem less powerful now. Don’t switch off, or give up. What we can do now, and what we need to do, more than ever, is to cut through the rhetoric and see this policy for what it really is, and change the conversation with anyone who will listen. This is your guide to the up-hill battle ahead. Let the fiery pre-election debates begin!

Labor’s “Regional Resettlement Arrangement” with Papua New Guinea (PNG) on refugees blatantly disregards our moral and legal obligation to protect asylum seekers. Asylum seekers who arrive by boat will no longer be resettled in Australia – boats will be intercepted and after health checks, asylum seekers will be transferred to PNG for processing and resettlement.

Here are five convincing reasons why this policy is contradictory to everything we have fought for since the Tampa incident:

1.    There is no evidence that this policy will “stop the boats”

There is no evidence to suggest that deterrence policies like this will actually stop people taking perilous boat journeys. Experience has shown us that deterrent policies such as offshore processing or mandatory detention do not have a deterrent effect on people coming to Australia to seek asylum. The risk of drowning on a horrific voyage is arguably one of the most powerful deterrents plausible, and yet, after years of deterrence policies, the number of asylum seekers arriving by boats continues to rise. Labor’s assumption that Parliament and not international crisis controls the flow of refugees is fundamentally flawed.

Labor claims the new policy will deter boats arriving in Australia because there is no longer a chance of resettlement here. Articles which report asylum seekers saying they will no longer take the boat journey do not prove that the policy is working. Removing the prospect of resettlement here will not deter boats, and here’s why.

First, asylum seekers do not necessarily have access to information about Australia’s latest political stunt. In Indonesia, asylum seekers are forced to live in the shadows, relying upon information from other sources, like people smugglers.

Second, getting on a boat is still a good option for an asylum seeker in Indonesia. With no protection by the Refugee Convention, refugees either spend their life hiding, or seek help from the drastically under-resourced United National High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) with minimal chance of resettlement – the need outstripping demand at 10 to 1, and claims taking upwards of 10 years. In order to leave Indonesia by plane, identification documents or a visa is required, and applying for these things can put the lives of refugees’ families at risk. Suddenly getting on a boat for a chance at a new life anywhere sounds like a good option.

Finally, the new policy has not been tested and is riddled with uncertainty, no doubt soon to be challenged in the courts internally or by PNG.  The Liberal party is claiming that the policy is not legally binding. Knowing this uncertainty, why wouldn’t people smugglers continue to encourage desperate asylum seekers on to boats?

In reality, this policy is more likely to redirect boats than to stop them entirely.

2.    This policy actually puts asylum seekers at risk

Labor claims the policy will save lives and “break the business model” of people smugglers, but the effect of the policy will in fact be detrimental to the welfare of refugees.

In February and in June, the UNHCR deplored the Manus Island detention centre as inadequate and contrary to the humane treatment of asylum seekers. The last children were recently removed from Manus Island, following the 40 family members removed in June, precisely because conditions are unsuitable for their detention. There are no exceptions for families under the new policy. We have no idea how long asylum seekers will have to languish in these conditions until their claims are processed.

Further, PNG is hardly a shining beacon of human rights protection. Earlier this year, PNG was under international scrutiny for suspected sorcery killings and violence against women, and the extension of the application of the death penalty. Don’t even get us started on the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex refugees in a country where people are locked up for up to 14 years based on their homosexuality.

Instead of being resettled in Australia, refugees will be thrown into a human rights-challenged, developing society with issues ranging from violence against minorities and poverty, to a cultural tradition suspicious of newcomers. Lucky them.

3.    This policy is not in Australia’s best interests

This policy sees Australia in likely breach of our international human rights obligations under the Refugee Convention, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and degrading Treatment, among others. We’re talking about non-refoulement, conditions of detention, access to courts, penalising refugees for their mode of arrival, and the rights of children, among other issues.

There are complex legal arguments in play since Australia excised its mainland from our migration zone, but in summary, the June report of the Senate’s Joint Committee on Human Rights is of the view, and the UNHCR seems to agree, that Australia’s level of involvement in the arrangements with Nauru and PNG means that Australia is still responsible for any breaches of human rights that occur in those countries to the asylum seekers we transfer there. Australia may actually be found to be aiding and assisting the commission of those human rights breaches.

WAKE UP AUSTRALIA – it’s so important for trade, finance, prosperity and security in this globalised world that Australia is a respected player in the international system. We are a member of the Security Council, a body that has repeatedly affirmed the importance of the Refugee Convention – it’s plainly embarrassing for us to violate it. Further, being a member of, and abiding by, the Refugee Convention is in Australia’s national interest, because the refugee problem is a threat to stability and security in our region. Also, it’s the morally justifiable thing to do as a good global citizen.

Advocating against this policy isn’t about having lofty ideals. It is irresponsible to ignore the damage that refusing to uphold our international obligations may have on Australia’s reputation and our international relations (discussed below).

4.    This policy gets us further away from an effective, regional solution

This policy is far from a long-term solution, and will cost potentially billions of dollars which could instead be put toward a solution that is effective at something other than winning an election.  Rudd has now closed the gap between the Labor and Coalition policies and vindicated Abbott’s “stop the boats for border protection” rhetoric. Is there any turning back from here?

There is no “solution” to the complex refugee question without international cooperation and without each country upholding their human rights obligations. Most major human rights organisations and many others in our movement argue for a regional solution based on the morality of offshore processing versus onshore processing and complexities of push and pull factors. A truly regional solution would see the entire region becoming members of the Refugee Convention and all countries working together to efficiently process and resettle refugees. The only scenario that will actually remove the need for refugees to get on boats is one where refugees can have their claims resolved within a couple of years, in satisfactory conditions, in transit countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.

When Rudd convenes the international conference that he has promised, how will our actions inspire confidence that we will uphold any agreed international promises, or encourage other nations to uphold their end of the bargain? Australia cannot convincingly fight for a regional solution to the refugee crisis when we are breaching our international human rights obligations.

5.    This policy is unfair on PNG

PNG is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a GDP per capita of $2,400. This developing country with limited resources does not need the burden of sheltering people who are Australia’s responsibility to protect, especially when we can afford it. The people of PNG have mixed feelings about the policy. PNG is currently struggling to provide refuge for asylum seekers it is already receiving from Indonesia and West Papua, not to mention improving the lives of its own people.

Labor insists that it is “for being a good global citizen”. As one of the wealthiest countries in the world, Australia should be proudly assisting our region by ensuring that the task of processing and resettling refugees is fairly distributed, based on capacity; we should not be handballing our human rights obligations to one of the world’s poorest countries.

So where does that leave refugee rights activists?

Labor’s flawed policy is plainly not about saving lives, but rather it is shameful political point scoring, tapping into the “eff off we’re full” mentality and illogical fear of the unknown rife amongst the Australian community. It might just work, and sure, asylum seekers will probably fare better long-term under a Labor government than a Liberal government. The question remains, why punish these vulnerable people for getting on boats to travel to Australia when those same actions, in the words of Julian Burnside AO QC, “simply reflect our shared sense of humanity and our fierce instincts for survival”? It’s hardly the sole reason to vote for a party. Labor is manipulating and capitalising on asylum seekers’ lives for their own gain – perhaps they are not so dissimilar to people smugglers in that respect.

It’s up to us to expose the truth of this policy, and to generate some honest debate about it leading up to the election. What can you do?

  • Change the conversation

Share these arguments with your family, friends, colleagues and anyone who will listen and change the conversation to one about effective, rights-focused solutions.

  • Contact your local politicians

Contact Local Members of Parliament and Labor Senators and share your concerns.  Politicians are quite accessible around election time. Find out who is actually working towards a workable, long-term solution that respects the rights of refugees.

  • Make your voice heard publicly

Keep up to date with the news, happenings and rallies in your city. Find new and creative ways to make your opposition to this policy public, loud and clear (see here for inspiration). Also, take action via a sneaky bit of clicktivism with the following online petitions:


Roxanne Moore is lawyer and a Fulbright Scholar commencing a LLM (International Legal Studies) at New York University.

Alexandra Scott is an Environmental Scientist and Australian Delegate to Global Powershift 2013. Roxanne and Alexandra are the National Coordinators of Amnesty International Australia’s ARTillery project; their opinions do not reflect the opinion of Amnesty International Australia.