Labor and Coalition MPs have shed thousands of crocodile tears claiming that Australia needed to “stop the boats” to “save lives” by making offshore processing of asylum seekers government policy.
Labor backed a private members bill put by independent MP Rob Oakeshott that would allow Australia to expel refugees to any country that was part of the Bali Process, including Malaysia.
Liberal leader Tony Abbott was then able to pose as more progressive by saying Australia should force refugees into camps only in countries that were signatories to the UN refugee convention, which the small and impoverished island Nauru signed last year.
The so-called debate was prompted by yet another boat disaster at sea. But it was couched in “border protection”, reflecting the narrow and manipulative media spin that calls every boat arrival and a few hundred new asylum seekers part of a “flood”.
But absent from the debate was an even cursory mention of the fact that Australia resettled only 24 UNHCR refugees from Indonesia between January and May. Two staff in the UN's Indonesia refugee deal with up to 8000 asylum seekers.
Australia has instead pushed Indonesia to criminalise so-called people smuggling. It has funded federal police rings to obstruct refugees trying to seek passage and frequently scuttled sea-worthy boats in Indonesian ports. Australia’s approach to refugees is not to stop them boarding barely floating vessels to “save their lives”, but to stop them coming at all.
That is why Australia’s maritime authorities ordered a sinking boat to “turn back to Indonesia” two days before it capsized and killed up to 90 people in the middle of the ocean.
And that is why Abbott can pledge to have the navy “turn back the boats”, just weeks after it was proven that just such an approach leads to more deaths. It’s why he can reiterate the lie that so-called temporary protection visas, which is now supported by several Labor politicians such as Senator Mark Bishop, stopped people from boarding boats to Australia.
Oakeshott's bill went down in the Senate thanks to the Greens principled stance against offshore processing. The Greens called for much-needed compassion for refugees, but the narrow, inhumane and false “solutions” continued to take centre-stage in the media.
Commentators previously supportive of refugee rights such as Mike Carlton and Susan Metcalfe even argued that the Greens refusal to “come to the table” with Labor over offshore processing was “inhumane” and a “missed opportunity”.
But many practical and humane solutions exist. Other individuals and groups have grown vocal against the hypocrisy of the mainstream refugee debate.
Human rights lawyer Julian Burnside told media that parliament's impasse was “pathetic”. “They say the problem is that people die at sea trying to get to safety in Australia,” he said on June 29.
“If that’s really the problem ... the obvious solution ... is for Australia to set up a fair dinkum, fair processing system in Indonesia with the co-operation of the Indonesian government.”
This would require a dramatic change in the present relationship between the two countries on asylum seekers. The Refugee Action Collective in Victoria said Australia had to start by “decriminalising the act of bringing refugee boats to Australia [and] making the boat passage to Australia safer. The Australian authorities could help ferry refugees from Indonesia or Malaysia to Australia.”
Also absent from Australia’s “debate” over asylum boats were the consequences of harsh “people smuggling” laws for the impoverished fishers who end up crewing boats and thrown into jail.
A former camp manager of the Manus Island detention centre, Bob Holland, wrote to the “expert panel” appointed by PM Julia Gillard in an online petition and proposed one remarkable solution.
He said most Indonesian fishers are “tempted by their own economic plight which has seen fisheries diminish and livelihoods destroyed by earthquakes and tsunamis.
“Divert some of the many millions spent on detention centres and direct these monies through our aid budget to needy fishermen and their families on the south coast of Java.”
Money spent on building super-detention centres in Indonesia and training Indonesian police to track and arrest refugees would be far better spent aiding poor fishers and resourcing the UN agencies to offer refugees real hope of resettlement. But refugees also have had a long journey well before reaching Indonesia.
The solutions have to reach further. Professor Bill Maley wrote in Fairfax media on June 29 that any policy of “deterrence” would “fail to come to grips with the wider forces in the world that underpin forced migration”.
“The number of places for refugee resettlement that stable countries are prepared to make available falls far short of the numbers of refugees in the world who desperately require resettlement from countries of first asylum.”
He said the crisis for Hazaras in Afghanistan, who cannot safely seek asylum from their own country or any neighbouring countries, would be addressed if Australia allowed “Afghans at risk to apply for resettlement from Afghanistan through an ‘in-country’ program, and to resettle really large numbers of Afghans from transit countries. Australia is one of the richest countries in the world, and can easily afford to do far more than it does.”
After facing unimaginable hardship fleeing war, conflict, abject poverty and persecution, one more perilous sea journey does not deter refugees seeking to save their own lives. A humane and practical response would not shut the door on them.
Raising Australia’s low humanitarian intake is one step, but reaching out, finding and safely resettling refugee across the world before they are forced to find their own way is the only solution that will “stop the boats” and save lives.