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Australia’s two main parties are committed to a single “solution” for asylum seekers that flee to Australia by boat — offshore processing. The policy is inhumane, unjust and flouts international law. It will also fail to reduce the people that seek asylum here.
In the last week of June, federal politicians were unable to agree on a new policy to discourage asylum seekers from trying to reach Australia by boat. Labor and the Coalition agree that offshore processing is the “solution”, they only differ on the detail. The ALP wants to send asylum seekers to Malaysia, the Coalition wants Nauru.
Only the Greens in the Senate stuck to a humanitarian refugee policy. They are now under intense political and media pressure to accept offshore processing.
Coalition leader Tony Abbott has gone further than support for offshore processing: he called for boats carrying asylum seekers to be towed back to Indonesia. This is a policy as dangerous as it is impossible. The creaky old fishing boats asylum seekers often use can break up under the strain of being towed. Indonesia has refused to allow Australia to tow boats back to its territory.
The big parties proposals ignore what causes people to risk their lives to come to Australia. This year the global number of refugees has risen by 20%. This is, in part, why there are more people attempting sea crossings.
The July 11 Daily Telegraph said the Sri Lankan navy stopped two boats on their way to Australia. Sixty-two asylum seekers were on board, including two children.
Sri Lanka has been the site of 30-year civil war between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. At the end of the war, more than 300,000 Tamils were held in concentration camps controlled by the Sri Lankan military. There was massive displacement of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
The Hazara ethnic minority in Afghanistan has been threatened with genocide for hundreds of years. They have been accused of supporting every invasion of Afghanistan since Genghis Khan, and the current conflict between Taliban and occupying forces has provided a pretext for further attacks against them.
There are now an estimated 90,000 people displaced in Burma as a result of ethnic conflict between Burmese and Rohingyas that has broken out after decades of simmering tensions.
Tamils from Sri Lanka, Hazaras from Afghanistan and Rohingyas from Burma make up a big part of the people who try to come to Australia. All have legitimate reasons to flee and it is next to impossible for any of them to enter Australia by plane, thanks to Australia’s discriminatory visa system.
It is the very serious conflicts and repression in these countries that makes people flee for their lives.
If politicians were genuinely concerned about refugees’ safety, then they would focus on giving them protection and providing a safe haven. But the framework of the new policy remains that of deterrence and border protection.
Offshore processing forces poorer countries to shoulder an unfair burden. Already, the poorer countries in this region take the lion’s share of refugees. Already, they are blamed for the “refugee problem”, over which they have no control. Australia’s drive to push even more of this burden onto poorer countries is cruel and hypocritical.
The Australian government should help fund the improvement of facilities for refugees in countries in the Asia Pacific region to better care for and quickly process claims. It should also change the Australian visa system to make it easier for refugees to come to Australia by plane and apply for refugee status.
But Labor and the Coalition are demonising those who come by boat and refusing to live up to Australia’s responsibilities under international refugee law.
As a rich country, Australia has a responsibility to take the main share of refugees in the region. Australia should, at least, raise its yearly refugee quota to 25,000 people a year.
Australia’s “boat people” intake should also be decoupled from other humanitarian intakes. At the moment, each refugee who granted asylum after coming to Australia by boat displaces another who has applied for status from overseas. This system pits refugees against each other and is not used by any other country in the world.
The big parties are also busy demonising “people smugglers”. But while the government makes all other forms of travel to Australia illegal, asylum seekers will be forced to use these services.
Condemning refugees for their method of entry into Australia is illegal under the United Nations convention on refugees. People have a right to enter a country and then apply for asylum without fear of persecution.
Australia needs a refugee policy based on protecting human rights and people in danger. The few thousand refugees who come by boat to Australia each year pose no threat to a country with a migration target of 190,000 people next year. They are just people who are fleeing horrific circumstances. They should be treated with respect and welcomed to Australia.