Cruel and costly boats policy: there is a viable alternative

Cruel and costly boats policy: there is a viable alternative

This article first appeared in The Age

Successive governments have been vying to draft the harshest refugee policies. We can do better than this.

Legislation rushed through Federal Parliament last week represents a new nadir in the seemingly bottomless pit of radical measures employed by successive Australian Governments to prevent asylum seekers arriving by boat from seeking Australia’s protection.

The new laws aim to shore up the offshore processing regime against a High Court challenge brought by the Human Rights Law Centre in May on behalf of a group of vulnerable people, including children and a baby, who face imminent return to detention on Nauru.

It was Labor who introduced mandatory detention of asylum seekers in the 1990’s, initially with time limits on detention, which were later scrapped. The Howard Government then started processing asylum seekers in offshore detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. After a short suspension, the Gillard Government reintroduced offshore processing and the Rudd Government added a harsh twist – no asylum seeker found to be a refugee offshore would ever be settled in Australia.

The Abbott Government has taken our policies to an even harsher level. Cutting the number of refugee places. Turning boats away. Dumping asylum seekers in lifeboats off the coast of Indonesia and most recently reportedly paying people smugglers to return to Indonesia - in likely breach of Australian, Indonesian and international laws.

It has blanketed our asylum seeker responses in intense secrecy that has seen our Government detain innocent people incommunicado on the high seas before returning them directly to the authorities in the countries they fled from.

It has stripped checks and balances from our mainland refugee assessment processes under new “fast track assessments” – greatly increasing the risks that we will return refugees to serious risks of persecution and death.

It has introduced flimsy refugee screening assessments on the high seas to create the charade that we are complying with our international obligations not to return people to harm. In the five years prior to Operation Sovereign Borders, around 90% of all asylum seekers arriving by boat were found to be refugees by our land-based assessment processes with proper court review. Yet, of 540 asylum seekers from 17 boats turned back at sea over the past 18 months, only two people were found to have potential refugee claims and all bar one person were sent back.

And now, mid-way through a High Court case that argues that the Government lacks the power to run and fund offshore detention centres, the Government has rushed new legislation through Parliament that explicitly seeks to grant itself the extraordinary power to lock people up in the territory of a foreign country. The legislation also seeks to retrospectively legalise the Government’s actions offshore since August 2012.

What all of these measures have in common is an attempt to avoid the fundamental obligation at the heart of the Refugee Convention – to protect people fleeing persecution, which necessarily involves fairly and properly assessing people’s refugee claims.

Our Prime Minister claims success. For him, success is measured by doing “whatever it takes” to stop asylum seekers attempting to seek Australia’s protection by boat.

Viewed from any decent perspective however, these policies are an abject failure.

They have not stopped the persecution. They have inflicted tremendous cruelty at a cost of billions in taxpayer dollars. And they have shifted the obligation to protect refugees onto other countries less capable of supporting them. During 2014, Australia protected just 0.43% of refugees recognized, registered or resettled globally – placing us 43rd in the world relative to GDP.

For those of us appalled by this situation, it would be easy to despair. Yet despair is the opposite of what is needed.

What we need is leadership to prosecute an alternative policy. A policy that provides people fleeing persecution with safe pathways to protection. That provides better options than the terrible choice of risking your life by staying in your conflict riddled country or risking your life on a boat journey.

Success with an alternative approach would not be easy. But it is within our reach – particularly considering the enormous political, financial and diplomatic resources that could be redirected away from our current harmful approach.

Four measures Australia could immediately adopt are:

1. Working meaningfully with countries like Indonesia and Malaysia to improve conditions and legal protections for asylum seekers there.

2. Redirecting some of the billions of dollars we spend on deterrence measures to process and support asylum seekers in other countries.

3. Increasing the number of refugees we take from the UN resettlement pool.

4. Urging other nations with capacity to do so to follow our lead.

The way Australia treats asylum seekers shows a stunning contempt for human rights and basic human decency. It is not the mark of great and fair nation. Out of the abyss of our current asylum seeker policy there is different approach available to us.

 Hugh de Kretser is the Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre @hughdekretser