How to Improve the Asylum Seeker Debate: Listen to Experts

By Max Walden | 29 Oct 15
Camp for Syrian refugees. Mustafa Khayat/flickr

This month, nearly 1,000 doctors, nurses and staff at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne publicly protested the government’s policy of placing children in immigration detention. Doctors refused to discharge a woman and her child to the Department of Immigration, stating that this would be against “her family’s treatment needs” to do so.  This extraordinary incident, in which highly regarded health experts, citing core professional standards, openly challenged the government under threat of imprisonment. They defied the government to say that it was they, not the government, who know best when to release patients from care, and that they would not – could not – release patients unfit to travel. It was planned, public, and it made headlines because medical professionals are Australia’s most highly respected people.

Australia’s public discussion of refugee protection in recent decades has become increasingly polarised, parochial and polluted. Dominated by politicians and media commentators from both sides of the political spectrum, debate about asylum seekers has categorically failed to provide almost any sustainable solution that can both uphold Australia’s human rights obligations and undermine people smuggling networks. But improving the discourse on this issue should be fairly simple: listen to the experts.

Discussions of viable policies are currently sidelined by emotive catchcries. At one end of the political spectrum are populist dog-whistlers who frame the complex issue of humanitarian migration as a mere need to “stop the boats”. This provides impetus to cruel policies that damage Australia’s international standing. The imprisonment of people for indefinite periods is unjustifiable, representing an expensive exercise in re-traumatising those who have fled conflict and persecution. Turning back boats to Indonesia simply compounds a highly complex environment for refugees in a developing country and worsens already-shaky relations with an important neighbour.

Australia cannot simply ignore forced migration occurring in its region
and internationally, nor the crises which trigger it.

Conversely, the pro-asylum seeker lobby appears to call for Australia to accept ever-higher numbers of refugees. Campaigns appeal to compassion in pushing for raised resettlement quotas, rather than highlighting Australia’s legal obligation as a signatory of the Refugee Convention and other UN human rights documents. Their cause has been a virtual failure. Despite the lobby’s years of advocacy, campaigns and demonstrations, both the Coalition and Labor remain determined to stem irregular migration.

Both extreme positions are counterproductive and ignore the reality of forced migration in the 21st century.

The late Malcolm Fraser bucked this trend. In his later years, he advocated sending Australian immigration officials to countries of first asylum to process refugees and asylum seekers there, along with an increase in Australia’s annual intake of refugees to 27,000 as recommended by the Houston Committee. He noted that taking significant numbers of those transiting in Indonesia would both ‘stop the boats’ and become the “basis for a robust and fair system that processes refugee claims in a timely manner”. Even then, elements of the left-wing media continue to sully his human rights credentials. They claim Fraser coined reactionary vocabulary like ‘queue jumper’ during his time as PM and resettled Vietnamese refugees in a reactionary effort to ‘stop the boats‘.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has provided specific recommendations to strengthen Australia’s international protection system. UNHCR has also criticised Australia’s attempts to limit the rights of successful asylum claimants and to frustrate claimants’ ability to obtain and retain protection. Most importantly, the recommendations underscore the importance of non-refoulement – not returning refugees to a place in which they are at risk of serious harm –which is considered so fundamental (and central to the Refugee Convention) as to be considered international customary law and applicable universally. Australia has been accused of breaching this principle in 2014 when it returned 41 Tamil and Singhalese asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan Navy without undertaking adequate refugee status determination and providing no chance of appeal.

Peak body the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) this year issued a detailed framework for how the Commonwealth Government can contribute to permanent solutions for refugees. It argued that Australia should contribute to the removal of barriers to refugee determination processes, help build greater regional consistency and develop alternatives to immigration detention. Instead the government continues to emphasise border security and has made unilateral decisions that undermine regional cooperation, including turning asylum seeker boats back to Indonesia and extraordinary retroactive legislation that prevents refugees there from ever coming to Australia if they registered with the UNHCR prior to July 2014.

The Centre for Policy Development (CPD) in 2014 released a report entitled “Beyond the Boats”, produced as the result of a high-level roundtable at the University of New South Wales’ Kaldor Centre that included Bob Douglas AO, public health academic and founding director of Australia 21; refugee law experts Dr Claire Higgins and Dr Jane McAdams; CPD migration expert Arja Keski-Nummi, formerly a senior employee of the Immigration Department for 30 years; and CPD CEO, lawyer and former policy adviser to the Oxford Martin School, Travers McLeod. The report made detailed recommendations, including that Australia expand migration pathways for humanitarian resettlement by raising the annual humanitarian intake to at least 15 per cent of overall migration and by establishing so-called “orderly departure arrangements”, allowing people to apply for human rights protection in Australia from their country of origin and flee safely.

Despite the expertise of these agencies, these practicable, research-based recommendations from policy and migration experts barely permeated public discourse on the issue of asylum seekers and refugees to the same extent as the doctors’ protest.

Forced migration and the plight of refugees looks to be a problem that will define global politics for decades to come. Australia cannot simply ignore forced migration occurring in its region and internationally, nor the crises which trigger it. It needs to develop sustainable policies and practices  that genuinely provide clear, safer pathways to protection in Australia, such as processing in countries of first arrival, where those countries cannot offer ongoing protection.

This is a difficult and complex issue that demands a long-term solution. This will require politicians to engage those who have actual expertise in the field.