Australia’s Abdication on the High Seas

MELBOURNE – In a recent commentary, Gareth Evans describes Australia’s new policy for handling seaborne asylum seekers. Evans depicts this policy, proposed by a panel of experts as balanced, as being “aimed at reducing both ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors driving refugee flows.”

But the expert panel did not truly follow its own terms of reference – which emphasized the need to prevent people from drowning at sea. Instead, the panel focused on deterrence, penalizing asylum seekers who survive the journey to Australian shores by sending them to Nauru or Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, to wait their turn to be processed. But, given that this policy relies on their arriving by boat, many will still die at sea. Indeed, while the policy is still new, boat arrivals have shown no sign of diminishing.

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The government has won support for this punitive approach by convincing the public that it is the only option for reducing the number of deaths at sea. But policymakers seem to have forgotten that when people are fleeing for their lives, when their family and friends have been brutalized, imprisoned, or killed, no democratic government’s deterrent can match the fear that drives them to try their luck on the high seas, packed into rickety boats.

In fact, rather than saving lives, this policy flies in the face of Australia’s international humanitarian obligations under the Refugee Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, especially given that unaccompanied children will be among the first to be sent to offshore detention. The fundamentally flawed concept of deterrence has no place in Australia’s refugee policy.

Instead, Australia’s policy should rest on two simple propositions. First, asylum seekers who arrive by boat, or “boat people,” should be processed on Australian territory.

Second, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) should work with Indonesia or Malaysia to establish a center where people can be processed speedily and, if found to be genuine refugees, resettled in Australia. (If the number of refugees turned out to be beyond Australia’s capacity, a regional approach could be developed later, involving resettlement in other countries.)

During the much larger exodus out of Indochina in the late 1970’s, UNHCR operated such a holding center in Malaysia, which effectively reduced the number of seaborne asylum seekers. Australia largely financed that project, and it should do so in this case as well. Tellingly, UNHCR officials have said that they will have no part in the management of a center in Nauru or Manus Island.

By committing to find a place for genuine refugees, such a policy would remove any incentive to take the perilous boat journey. It would guarantee that nobody has to die at sea.

In his commentary, Evans misrepresents the humanitarian burden of a more open refugee policy. While it is true that roughly 7,000 asylum seekers have arrived by boat this year, the annual average since 1976 is closer to 1,000. In contrast, the humanitarian intake from Indochina in 1976-1981 was roughly 150,000. With family reunion and business migration, the number grew to more than 250,000 people. Australia accommodated these people with humanity and compassion, believing it to be an ethical and moral obligation.

Face-off: Read former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans's original commentary, "A Lifeline for Asia's Boat People."

Today, the government has humiliated refugees, calling them illegal, “queue jumpers,” and possible threats to national security. The government has encouraged Australians to change their attitude toward people in need, while claiming, as Evans does, that Australia remains one of the two or three most generous countries in accepting refugees.

That, too, is political spin. In fact, Australia has accepted roughly 7,000-10,000 refugees annually from UNHCR camps. Former Prime Minister John Howard’s government linked boat arrivals to the total number of accepted refugees. So, for every boat arrival, the number of refugees accepted from official UNHCR camps fell. Previously, as during the Indochinese exodus, the number of refugees allowed to settle in Australia was added to the official intake.

This distinction between official and unofficial intake exists in most countries. So, while Evans is right to claim that Australia is among the top two or three countries for official resettlement intake, this does not make Australia one of the more generous countries. There are currently 1.56 million refugees in Europe, including 571,700 in Germany and 193,500 in the United Kingdom. These countries’ high unofficial intake means that they understandably keep their official intake low.

To judge a country’s contribution (or, if you like, a country’s humanity), the official and unofficial intakes must be considered together. In that case, Australia’s per capita contribution ranks 71st worldwide. Moreover, while people wait in official UNHCR camps for 17 years on average, the panel did not recommend any time limit for offshore processing, and the government has remained silent on the duration of people’s stay on Manus Island or Nauru.

To be sure, Evans is right that the Howard government’s refusal to allow into Australian waters the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa, carrying 438 rescued Afghans, was a source of national shame. The government’s mishandling of the episode resonated around the world, and Australia’s previously good reputation plummeted.

Given that the Labour Party leader at the time supported the hard-headed policy of Howard and his Liberal Party, both of Australia’s major parties were at fault. Today, having engaged in toxic debates and played politics with the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people to win votes, they share the blame again.

Rather than describing the circumstances from which people flee – and publicizing the fact that roughly 85% of boat people are genuine refugees – policymakers on both sides have demonized the victims, convincing Australians that they are undeserving. But if the Australian people are given the facts, they will be the best advocates for refugees – far better than Australia’s politicians.