Laws will stop the boats, but should we?

Why do we send refugees to the islands of the damned, asks Dan Zwi.

Source: Cafe Whispers
Source: Cafe Whispers

There have always been two motives at play in Australia’s undying bid to prevent refugees from arriving here by boat. The first is concern for the safety of asylum seekers undertaking the precarious journey from Indonesia. The second is concern for the safety of Australians – you know, safety from violence at the hands of terrorist asylum seekers from the Middle East. And, economic safety from the threat of migrants usurping Australian jobs.

The (somewhat pompously named) Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers was released on Monday August 13, and I’m trying to decide which of the above motives better account for it. Amongst its recommendations are the immediate reintroduction of offshore processing in Nauru and Manus Island and indefinite detention of asylum seekers pending resettlement. Parliament on Thursday legislated for these changes.

Let’s give Labor and the Coalition (the bill received bipartisan support) the benefit of the doubt and assume that their primary goal in adopting the policy is the prevention of deaths at sea. After all, since late 2001, 964 asylum seekers have perished in this way. Yet humanitarian concern for the wellbeing of asylum seekers is surely inconsistent with placing them in indefinite detention on remote Pacific islands. How can politicians make any pretense of compassion whilst tacitly endorsing the deterioration in mental health and proliferation of self-harm that inevitably accompanies such treatment?

The policy will work in stopping the boats, though. That much is beyond doubt. Under Howard’s ‘Pacific Solution’ – materially the same as the new measures but for the former’s use of Temporary Protection Visas – arrivals all but stopped.

Between September 2001 and February 2008 a total of 1637 asylum seekers reached Australia by boat. In 2012, there have been 7,120 already. It is implausible to account for that rate of increase by reference to ‘push’ factors alone.

So yes, there will be fewer deaths at sea. We are still inordinately punishing those asylum seekers that are so desperate to escape persecution that they are not deterred by the journey itself, the prospect of years in a Pacific processing facility, or the lack of guaranteed resettlement in Australia if found to be a refugee.

If the government wants to stop the boats without being inhumane, it might consider making it easier for asylum seekers to fly here (there are currently numerous obstacles to the procurement of even tourist visas in refugee-laden countries). Or, it could vastly increase its humanitarian intake, as the Report recommends. Or, it could commit to onshore processing while reserving the right to resettle refugees elsewhere.

I’m just brainstorming here. The thing is, in considering Australia’s new/old policy, the more cynical side in me supposes that it is the second, more sinister motive – that of punishing refugees to avoid being swamped by them – that lies behind it.