Seizing the opportunity for a more humane approach to asylum seekers

Last week I received a text message from a man in Indonesia who had just lost his brother in the recent boat tragedy. He said “I come soon by boat. I lost faith in UNHCR. I have no choice.” This man like many others has been in detention in Indonesia since last year, waiting for the UNHCR to interview him. In June he texted me that 35 people in the detention centre had paid the guards and “escaped”. He said that he would wait and go the “right way”. After nine months he was finally moved out of an Indonesian detention prison to a hostel. He has been anxiously following Australian politics and asking if and when the government may change and whether a new government will “close the door”. Last week he decided to wait no more.

Meanwhile the language of deterrence to “stop the boats” continues to underpin Australian policy and obsess our politicians. It is extraordinary that politicians cannot see that the natural deterrents facing asylum seekers have not stopped them taking the decision to risk the boat trip. If seeing family members lose their lives is not enough, what can we do that is worse?

In any other area of policy, discussions of harm minimisation and alternatives to failed policies might be considered. However so toxic and entrenched has the debate about a few thousand people arriving by boat become, that there is no consideration for anything but rabid cries to “stop the boats”. Asylum seekers have been so dehumanised that any trauma visited upon them raises barely a ripple of dissent. A public, which can be rightly roused to anger and distress over a teenage lad being murdered on a night out in Kings Cross, cares little for the drowning of other families’ sons as they try to escape being murdered for political and religious reasons.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) recently took the opportunity – along with more than 60 other legal, academic, church and human rights groups – to put forward plans for a change of policy to the Government’s expert panel on asylum seekers.

Successive governments have rolled out punitive legislation and regulations to make the lives of people seeking asylum as miserable as possible. But for the first time since 1992, when mandatory detention was introduced to deter people from seeking asylum onshore in Australia, we now glimpse a moment when change might be possible and we must seize the opportunity.

Some would see this optimism as supreme folly, but feelings run deep on the issue of human rights and asylum seekers. What we lack in numbers we have in stubborn commitment, though many of us will be dead by the time an apology for the brutal harshness to refugees and asylum seekers is read out publicly in the Parliament.

The ASRC submission asks for measures to save lives. Our plan involves the immediate resettlement of 1000 refugees of the 1200 people in Indonesia who have been assessed and approved as refugees and who are currently waiting for resettlement. We know that these people will risk their lives on the boats if they have no alternative. We recommend an increase in places to 25,000 annually and that these come from the region.

We sought also to include 4000 refugees from Malaysia, and that this number must include those who are stateless. We made this recommendation to demonstrate to both Indonesia and Malaysia that Australia was moving away from a position where we saw our neighbours as nothing more than a dumping ground for the humans we do not want.

The ASRC plan advocates an increase in funding to the UNHCR in Indonesia and our regional neighbours, with monitoring to ensure that this funding is directed at processing the applications within a reasonable time frame. Most importantly there must be an end to processing without resettlement. This is Australia’s responsibility. Neither the Nauru nor Malaysian proposals include resettlement.

The submission recommends an immediate negotiation with Indonesia to codify and regularise the search and rescue response of both Indonesia and Australia in order to save lives. The current situation, under which Indonesia is responsible for the area extending 230 nautical miles from the Indonesian coastline to the 12 nautical mile limit surrounding Christmas Island and Cocos Island, has failed. If we want to save lives at sea we must immediately put more resources into maritime rescue operations. We must also provide alternatives to dangerous boat journeys through formal and safe avenues to resettlement.

Our submission also highlights those measures which we think put lives at risk. We reject both the Malaysian and Nauruan plans on the basis that they fail the safety test. Both require people seeking asylum to place their lives at risk by boarding dangerous boats in order to trigger rescue and removal to an offshore place. This solution is morally repugnant as it is predicated on risk of deaths in order to be a deterrent to others.

The ASRC submission, like many others, outlined a mix of short, medium and long term measures to prevent loss of life at sea. None of these are possible if our political leaders continue to denigrate and dehumanise the people seeking asylum. An acknowledgement that this is a right under the international conventions to which Australia is a signatory, is needed to replace the incorrect “illegals” dialogue.

Political and moral leadership has never been more needed in this area of national responsibility. It is so lacking even while the rancid voices of hate and division grow louder. This multicultural nation of migration may yet rue the day we allowed these voices to be unleashed. Our collective respect for the sanctity of human life is undermined by policies which place lives at risk.

Pamela Curr is the campaign co-ordinator at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.