Asylum seekers and refugees are never far from the headlines. Indeed from time to time stories involving them are among the most prominent in the news cycle. In recent times, boat arrivals of people seeking asylum have been more than weekly. The debate about what to do about the perilous journey, from Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka has been up there with the most politicised and most discussed issues of this 43rd parliament.
We have a new policy, a return to most aspects of the Pacific Solution that the Gillard Government continues to work towards implementing. This calls for offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island as happened under the Howard Government.
The Gillard Government has or is working toward implementing all of the recommendations of the expert panel on asylum seekers which was chaired by former Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Angus Houston. However, the Coalition want more.
The Opposition, through leader Tony Abbott and Shadow Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison have continued to call for the reintroduction of Temporary Protection Visas (TPV’s). The Coalition have also called for a return to that policy that Indonesia do not like and will never allow to happen- turning back asylum seeker boats toward Indonesia.
In the case of TPV’s, the Labor Party, as part of the recommendations from the Houston panel are, in effect, implementing an iteration of the Howard Government measure which will cut out family reunion.
But of course, and rightly so, the ALP Government is against turning back the boats This is the case, one, because the ADF sees it as no longer feasible or safe and two, because Indonesia would voice their anger and discontent at our contempt for our regional neighbour.
But it is the evolution of the asylum seeker policy of the Tony Abbott led Opposition, apart from the already announced measures, that will add to the poor treatment of people seeking asylum in Australia who arrive by boat.
Last Friday the Opposition Leader announced an effective minimum prison sentence for the “offence” of seeking asylum, seeking refuge from the fear of, or from actual persecution. The no advantage test, part too of the recommendations of the expert panel, has so far not had a time in offshore detention applied to it. But Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party think it should be no less than 5 years. In the legal fraternity this would be termed a mandatory minimum sentencing provision.
Of course, since mandatory detention was introduced in the early 1990’s, we have had what amounts to a term in prison. At first, a time limit of less than a year was implemented by the Keating Government, but that was removed in favour of an indefinite stay. In effect, the indefinite nature of asylum detention will continue under a Liberal Government with a 5 year minimum stay. The time served would almost certainly be longer.
In further worrying comments, the Opposition also appeared to question the efficacy of a regional solution, saying that too much time was spent on discussing the problem in the region and not enough on tough deterrence measures.
Also of concern in the comments made at the end of last week was what appeared to be utter contempt for the work of the UNHCR, the United Nations’ asylum seeker and refugee organisation. Australia has long appeared to feel this way towards the UN about asylum seekers and refugees. However, that would seemingly accelerate under an Abbott Government.
The Coalition is obviously moving towards an aim of being the most punitive in Australia’s history toward asylum seekers and refugees. At the moment that is just rhetoric, but there is a strong chance that the strong words will become punishing deeds in government, also a strong possibility.
Far from just showing a desire to put forward the strictest regime for asylum seekers, the Abbott-led Opposition appear hell-bent on isolating Australia further from the way the region and the international community should deal with the asylum seeker question.
All this punishment and pain for what gain? Seeking asylum is not a crime, thought it appears there is a wish that it was. Either way, asylum seekers are going to be locked away for at least 5 years under a Coalition Government.
Policies on people coming to live in Australia, whether in desperate circumstances or as migrants hoping to make the most of opportunities that Australia has to offer continue to veer toward the insane and abhorrent, even appealing to the xenophobic in some cases. Under the Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard the ALP veered even to the right of the Liberal Party on asylum seeker policy, thankfully failing in getting through the so-called ‘Malaysian Solution’ because of two disparate political parties, the Greens and the Liberal/National Party Coalition.
In roughly the same period of time, we have also been reminded that the Coalition would also like to see asylum seeker boats turned around if safe to do so, slammed by many.
But today we have had the Liberal Party remind us again that temporary protection visa’s, TPV’s for short would be reinstated under a future Coalition Government.
The granting of TPV’s was used as part of the Howard Government ‘Pacific Solution’ which saw boat arrivals dramatically reduced in the early 2000’s until the government lost power in 2007.
The announcement went even further too with a new policy announcement by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and his Shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison.
Today it was announced at the press conference held by the two representatives of the Coalition that asylum seekers arriving without identity papers or a passport should not be given refugee status in Australia. The exact wording being that there would be a “strong presumption” that people arriving in Australia without any form of identification would not be given refugee status.
The stance on TPV’s and on the denial of refugee status to people arriving without documentation is problematic.
Visas granting temporary protection assume that in the event a conflict ends within a nation where a refugee has come to Australia from that they will no longer face persecution in that country and in many cases this is just not the reality, persecution of particular ethnic groups can still continue even when broader tensions have ceased.
Of course though, people who wish to return to their country of origin, if they feel it safe to do so, should be able to make that journey home of their own volition.
There too are problems with denying refugee status to asylum seekers that arrive in our waters without papers which will make them more easily identifiable to Australian authorities assessing their claims.
The first is that in many cases their papers are confiscated by the very people who are plying this horrific trade in human misery, the people smugglers themselves.
Second, where will these asylum seekers be sent when there claims are denied by the government because of having no papers? They cannot be refouled simply because they didn’t have papers, they would need to be sent to another country where they would be free from persecution at least until the veracity of their claims was able to be properly assessed even if made much harder by the lack of documentation.
Put simply, this policy takes the Malaysian asylum seeker deal and says, “Hah I have a stronger hand. So much stronger that it will make yours look like child’s play”.
Very few people deny that the trade of people smugglers needs to be broken, it sure does. But this is simply not the way to do it, using people in this situation as a political football. Both the asylum seeker deal with Malaysia and this increasingly strengthened Coalition policy are und0ubtedly deterrents, but they are the wrong kind of deterrent that could see people needing protection denied that.
What is needed is global action as well as a regi0nal solution where the processing of refugee claims in countries of origin are sped up through concerted global action involving all nations and the agencies charged with assessing refugee claims.
More countries in our region too need to urgently sign and ratify the Refugee Convention so that asylum seeker numbers can be shared around the region more while we still do our fair share.
Indeed an Australian solution is also needed where we increase the numbers we take directly from conflict hot spots and from camps in our region before people get on incredibly shoddy vessels putting themselves at risk of perishing at sea.
It’s a tricky situation but the one-upmanship has to stop and solutions which help vulnerable people and convince them against making expensive and unsafe boat journeys simply have to trump policies which above anything punish these people and put them in further danger.