Trying to stop refugee boats is unethical and futile

The reality is that taking a boat to Australia would be the least dangerous option for many.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s “expert panel” on refugee policy will hand over its findings on how to “stop the boats” and end the parliamentary “deadlock” over offshore processing when parliament begins sitting again next week.

After an asylum boat tragedy that killed 90 people in June, the three-member panel, headed by former defence chief Angus Houston, was tasked to report on the “best way forward for Australia to prevent asylum seekers risking their lives” considering “Australia’s right to maintain its borders”.

When she set up the panel, Gillard made clear that some model of “offshore processing” would remain the Labor government’s priority, even though the High Court ruled its plan to process refugee claims in Malaysia unlawful.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott said the panel’s findings would not change the Coalition’s plans to send refugees to Nauru, reintroduce “temporary protection visas” and turn asylum seeker boats back to Indonesia.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media have not let up on their fear campaign against those that help bring asylum seekers here to seek protection.

ABC radio said on August 4 that the target of an ABC Four Corners “expose” on domestic people smugglers, Ali al Abassi (Captain Emad), had had his protection visa revoked and could not return to Australia.

A few days later, the Australian’s Paul Maley and Cameron Stuart published extensive details of small businesses in Melbourne and western Sydney that were allegedly transferring money overseas to help relatives pay passage to Australia as asylum seekers.

They said the businesses were using the informal “hawala” system, which leaves no paper or electronic trail, to send money to people smugglers for Hazara, Iraqi and Iranian family members to get to Australia.

“The Australian Federal Police is stepping up efforts to detect businesses in Australia that are seeking to profit and promote the people-smuggling trade,” they said on August 6.

Maley and Stuart feigned sympathy for people being “exploited” by so-called people smugglers, while demonising their Australian families for “illicit” activity.

What they failed to mention is that for Hazara, Iraqi and Iranian families in particular, there is no other way to reunite under the Australian system.

Australia’s total humanitarian quota is only 13,750 places each year. This includes offshore refugees in camps and onshore applicants through the Special Humanitarian Program. Asylum seekers arriving by boat, their families, family members of resettled refugees and refugees in camps all compete for the same tiny pool of resettlement places — and the government decides how many of each receive protection.

Family reunion via this route is unrealistic for most, and the waiting list for some spans more than 20 years. For people recovering from trauma, suffering mental illness or trying to build a life in a foreign country, being separated from family for such lengths has profoundly negative effects.

They often cannot choose to come by plane either. Australian immigration routinely refuses to give any kind of visa to certain ethnic groups (such as Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians and Sri Lankans) that they consider more likely to apply for refugee status once here.

Family reunion is a common reason people get on asylum boats. Scores of women and children were on the SIEV-X when it sank in 2001. They were trying to reach their husbands and fathers who were on temporary protection visas and had no right to sponsor family for resettlement.

Similarly, many refugees on boats are victims of years of limbo in so-called transit countries such as Indonesia — a country that does not legally recognise them — where they must await resettlement.

Australia resettled only 17 refugees from Indonesia in the first three months of this year. In Indonesia, refugees live a shadowy life, at risk of being thrown in immigration jails or caught up in exploitative work.

Taking a boat to Australia would be the least dangerous option for many, even as the Australian Federal Police’s efforts to “disrupt” boat journeys make them more dangerous.

That’s why toughening “border control” without raising Australia’s humanitarian intake is a sure-fire way to lead to more deaths. But that is the path Gillard and Abbott will gladly go down.

In response to the Gillard government’s “terms of reference” for the Houston inquiry, The Conversation set up a parallel “expert panel” and published its findings on August 3.

Based on the evidence, the panel found the approach of “deterrence” was “both unethical in relation to persecuted people and unworkable in relation to discouraging an illicit market in irregular migration”.

The panel said there was not enough evidence to justify the costs and potential harm of “deterrence” and enforcement measures.

But it said a “substantial increase” to the humanitarian visa quota “would reduce the need for irregular migrants to board unseaworthy vessels and ease the tensions arising from perceived competition for places between offshore [applicants under the refugee] convention ... and the Special Humanitarian Program stream.

“Such an increase would also make family reunion a more realistic prospect for refugee settlers. This is important because there is strong evidence that family reunion is a key determinant of successful settlement.”

Boosting Australia’s refugee intake to at least 20,000-25,000 is well within means. The 2012-13 migration program is expected to bring in 190,000 new migrants, mostly skilled workers.

Regardless of Houston’s findings, the two big parties are focused only on “stopping the boats” to prevent the people on them getting Australia's protection at all. The campaign against offshore processing must continue and grow stronger.

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