Debates about offshore processing and how best to ‘manage’ the refugee ‘problem’ have flared up again following the tragic boat sinking between Indonesia and Australia over the weekend. In a sickening display, both Labor and the Coalition have used the tragedy to pursue their various forms of offshore processing, (or dumping) that do not save lives, but rather ruin or kill them under someone else’s responsibility.
More disappointing though has been the response from liberals or those considered allies of the refugee movement. Both Robert Manne and Bernard Keane in their responses, have accepted the logic of the mainstream debate that we need to stop the boats through a policy of deterrence in order to save lives. They also accept the logic that there is a problem with refugees seeking asylum that we need to manage somehow, rather than help to facilitate the safe seeking of asylum, by whatever means is necessary.
The starting point should be the recognition of that fundamental right to seek asylum. And that right is guaranteed no matter how one arrives. I repeat that a lot, but I do so, because it seems to so often get missed. People have a right to arrive by boat, and recognising that right should involve helping those who do so, to do safely.
Policies that impede that right, such as offshore processing, or policies involved in stopping the boats, also do not save lives. The end result of denying someone’s right to seek asylum is to work toward preventing them escaping situations of war or persecution. People who are seeking asylum often flee for fear of their life or liberty. If they do not escape or are sent back through deportation, the logical conclusion is that they could lose their life or are imprisoned, tortured etc. and that we are partly responsible for that. This is especially the case if we are invading those countries in the case of Afghanistan, or financially or politically backing the repressive government, in the case of Sri Lanka’s persecution of the Tamils.
The other outcome is that, if they manage to flee the initial situation, they are stuck in a third country; countries that are not signatories to any refugee convention or less able to look after refugees. Or in the case of the Malaysian solution, they will be sent back to one of these third countries. In Malaysia, refugees are caned and tortured. They have no rights. They have no right to work or receive benefits and often have to work illegally or beg to eat and live, and to look after their families. These ‘queues’ where people wait for decades, effectively rotting, unable to restart their lives, driven to take a boat because it’s the only way, are not a solution to the problem that people need to seek asylum.
Manne supports Nauru, the Coalition’s alternative, but this solution too means refugees languish on another island for possibly years waiting to be resettled, and not in Australia. Detention like this destroys people. It is not a more humane option.
Manne then goes on to argue that the Left have largely ignored the danger that asylum seekers face when travelling to Australia by boat, and that we must find a policy that deters this. But my alternative, and one I think the refugee movement must be clear on, involves not stopping the boats, but by making it safer.
There is nothing fundamentally dangerous about travelling from one country to another by boat. But it is the criminalisation of people smuggling that makes it dangerous and indeed fatal. Border patrols force boats to take the most dangerous routes to avoid detection. The policy of ‘scuttling’ boats i.e. destroying them on arrival, mean only the cheapest and most unseaworthy boats are sent on one way voyages.
The alternative I envisage would involve patrols to help boats in trouble arrive at our shores. It would involve even regulating the industry so that safe and seaworthy boats could transport asylum seekers from places like Malaysia and Indonesia and allow those boats to return. This would be on top of not only dramatically increasing our intake by plane, but to also honour it.
In this respect, I agree with Guy Rundle’s response to both Keane and Manne.
We need to stop treating refugees arriving by boat as a problem that needs to be managed, but instead see that refugees being unable to safely seek asylum is the real problem, and our goal should be to help manage that, rather than deter people from exercising that basic right.
But our government, whether it has been a Labor one or a Liberal one, prefers to turn refugees into a problem, a threat, to divert attention away from other problems, such as lack of funding for health and education, and so will not change their policy unless their is political pressure put on them, and this pressure does not waver on principles in order to appease those in government, and accept the mainstream terms of the debate. The mainstream debate is focussed on other goals, not a goal that seeks to look after people’s human rights.
It is clear to me, as it does when the refugee issue flares up time and time again, that a large, vocal, public and principled campaign for refugee rights needs to be created to pressure the government. This will require arguments to be had, but also for people to mobilise on the streets.