The report delivered by the Angus Houston-led “expert panel” on asylum seekers is not a plan for “stopping the boats” or stopping people from risking their lives at sea. It is a plan to demonise refugees and use them as a scapegoat for the rising government-led attacks on Australian people.
Despite hundreds of submissions from refugee experts, lawyers and human rights organisations rejecting offshore processing, the panel has capitulated to the fear campaign against the small numbers of highly vulnerable people that are desperate enough to risk their lives on boats in a bid for safety in Australia.
The report’s language focuses on “incentives” and “disincentives”, but its recommendations still treat refugees as “queue jumpers” and “illegals”.
This obscures the true nature of the refugee crisis: no such queue exists and the “authorised channels” for resettlement are a lottery that leaves millions of displaced and persecuted people in perpetual limbo.
But more importantly for Labor and the Coalition, it also creates a politically convenient but false distinction between “good” and “bad” asylum seekers. The "bad" asylum seekers will bear the brunt of blame for worsening economic conditions, job losses, the rising housing crisis and government austerity.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the government would back the report’s key recommendations, which call for reinstating many of former PM John Howard's worst “Pacific solution” measures, including reopening detention camps on Nauru and Manus Island and refusing family reunion rights. Gillard has also agreed to more enforcement and disruption measures against asylum seekers in Indonesia.
All 22 recommendations boil down to an old and potent myth about refugees: if they want any humane treatment from Australia, asylum seekers must join the “queue” and wait to come the “right way”.
The panel's first recommendation says Australia should implement a “'no advantage’ principle to ensure that no benefit is gained through circumventing regular migration arrangements”.
Its proposal to raise Australia's humanitarian intake to 20,000 places a year may seem positive at first. But it is part of a clear policy plan to discredit the protection needs of asylum seekers that come by boat and legitimise the mistreatment of these people. Labor was swift to sideline the recommendation to increase the number of refugees it resettles from Indonesia and instead has wholeheartedly embraced the Coalition's appalling policy.
The report proposes to reopen a detention camp on Nauru, at a cost of $1.2 to $1.4 billion, to detain up to 1500 asylum seekers. A second centre on Manus Island would hold up to 600 asylum seekers at a cost of $900 million, SBS News said on August 14.
No policy of deterrence from Australia can address the real reasons people are forced to flee their homes just to survive. Thousands of refugees will still seek “unauthorised” boats to Australia because they know they have no other option.
In some ways, the Houston panel’s plan is even worse than Howard’s Pacific solution regime. The panel recommended that asylum seekers sent to these camps would “not be advantaged over what it would have been had they availed themselves of assessment by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees within the regional processing arrangement”.
This means refugees sent to Nauru and Manus Island could be forced to remain there for the same period as refugees awaiting resettlement in Indonesia or Malaysia, which spans years and decades, and for some means never being resettled.
The panel also proposed to deny key rights to family reunion for refugees that arrive by boat, by removing their ability to propose or “sponsor” relatives through the Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) once they are settled. It said asylum seekers that want “to bring family to Australia will need to do so under the existing family stream of the Migration Program”.
This will have an especially severe impact on unaccompanied children, who rely on the Special Humanitarian Program to have adult family members gain safer passage to Australia.
One journalist at the media conference on the release of the panel's report called these children “anchor babies”, and Labor and the Liberals have used unaccompanied children as a weapon in the debate against people seeking protection in Australia.
Immigration minister Chris Bowen has previously refused to exempt minors from being sent to Malaysia, calling them a “loophole” that is exploited.