Five things I think about asylum seeking and what we can do and still save souls (ours and theirs)

Five big issues – all connected, and you can’t have or deal with one without the other.  So first big issue – the boats; actually it’s not the boats, or the numbers, or even the poor souls dying at sea. It’s that every boat that arrives corrodes the authority and legitimacy of the government. Since 1901 Australians have wanted their governments to keep our borders “secure”. We had the first federal parliament spending every ounce of its power to work up a deal that would keep out the boats without alienating the British government. We got White Australia. Then Billy Hughes basically stuffed the whole world in 1921 by demanding the League of Nations refuse to allow a non-racial clause: so he kept the boats out that time too, until the Japanese bombed Darwin twenty years later (about the time period since we first started mandatory detention – and look where that’s got us).

You can’t turn the boats around, slow then or stop them unless you have a real alternative in place that deals with the four other issues.  Australia’s the end of  the food chain in this part of the world, or you can continue to New Zealand. We need to accept that the start of the chain – places like Afghanistan, Syria, Quetta, and on, are going to hell in a handbasket, and everyone who wants to survive and not be blasted, will be trying to move away from the line of fire. Iran may be somewhat different, but its particular characteristics can be accounted for. Meanwhile, the oceans are rising and we haven’t even begun to see the start of the environmental refugees from Bangladesh and the Pacific that the next decade will produce. So question one, can we stop the push factors? Well, we’ve done incredibly well in Afghanistan, haven’t we? The best possible scenario is that the Afghan National Army will last a few years and won’t roll over for the Taliban; whatever the outcome the Hazaras are not going to get out of it well, and in Quetta they are being blown apart day in and day out by the Pakistani Sunni terrorists/nationalist/sectarianists who don’t want these people in their country.   Oh and global warming, we’ve cracked that too. Concluding point one, not much we can do is likely to moderate the pressures at the other end.

So it’s all about the supply chain, if the tap is open at the dam.  We now have four big problems.

We have signed up to a commitment to save the lives of people fleeing for safety and we don’t know how to do it anymore.

We have designed an asylum model that guarantees to piss of everyone who is a part of it, from the families be they African, Afghan, Tamil or Iraqi trying to save their relatives, to the people held hopelessly/hopefully in camps, to the Australian workers forced to act as gaolers for people they are supposed to be succouring, to the wider population whose callousness blossoms with every iteration of the get tough rhetoric.

We have no way of managing the legitimate claims to filter the potentially overwhelming demand, among which is maybe 50% of people who are trying it on, often not knowing themselves whether or not they are really eligible, and discovering the only way to find out is to jump on a boat.

We keep rabbiting on about a regional plan but no one seems to know what that might really mean, who’ll pay for it, and why anyone else should stop the richest nation in the region copping it sweet.

Ok so here’s my two bob’s worth (dates me…), and just to set this up, my parents were refugees, most of their families were exterminated, and nobody gave a shit at the time, or much afterwards.  They used people smugglers, they used fake documents, and they could have been killed a dozen times or more every week they were on the road.  It took them seven years to find refuge in Australia, and the door slammed shut hard behind them, in an epiphany of racist rhetoric from the ALP government and media of the day.  And they and I are damned glad they made it.

Recognise we are dealing with a problem for which regularisation, management and least-worst solutions are needed.  Recognise the source issue will grow not lessen (in the past we’ve been lucky that the sources have contracted so the flow diminished, so a couple of boats could be turned around).

Firstly, Australia will need to recognise that a figure of 50,000 refugees ultimately settled each year for the next five years at least will be needed – in the context of a  200,000 p.a.  or so immigrant intake that’s hard but not impossible.  Then disengage the two elements that really stuff it up – self-starters versus sponsored and selected.  Start with 20,000 family reunion, UNHCR and humanitarian sponsored refugees and do not allow the places to be consumed by other arrivals.  That leaves up to 30,000 to play with. Some of these go to on-shore applicants arriving with valid visas by plane who then apply for protection. For this category, most Chinese applicants (the majority) fail and are returned. Most of the others (a minority) succeed; meanwhile they live in the community on bridging visas and everyone seems comfortable with that, because their identities are “known” as is their whereabouts. That is government still appears to be in control.

Now the critical thing comes in, these off-shore permits to apply for on-shore determination have to be available and used further up the chain in a reasonably accessible way; otherwise Indonesia is inundated with yet more hopefuls, and we don’t want to load up our neighbours with queues they cannot handle.  There’s no point in trying to intervene in Jakarta in a process that starts in Quetta; that’s the sunk-cost fallacy that the Government has refused to recognise for years.  Once people have invested or borrowed the cash, they’re committed unless you kill them or drive them into madness, or unless they can lose the money and not worry about consequences.

So Australia needs to create something like an off-shore permit that serves as a bridging visa, that requires proof of identity or good evidence that such proof is not available, and some evidence of claim. This is an alternative or parallel to the current UNHCR pathway, which would also need to be extended. Those dodgy Indian papers will not work for this. Successful applicants will then be issued with a short-term visa with certain conditions (like a working holiday visa but with some added elements, notably a commitment to leave Australia if found not to be a refugee, to undertake work or training as directed for pay while in Australia).  If deemed a refugee, they will be allocated a location and work or training for two years under a new national settlement plan that encourages economic enterprise, education and integration; or they may be resettled elsewhere depending on the agreements Australia is able to reach around the world.

Unsuccessful applicants will be informed near the start of the supply chain that they don’t fit the criteria. These short term visas would allow them to be processed on-shore but not out of the normal humanitarian intake. Anyone seeking to arrive without such a permit, will be deported or detained. Leaving any neighbouring country without such a permit will place people at the end of the queue, and they may be placed on Nauru or Manus: they can always choose to go back to their last port and apply for a permit.   People with a permit will not be placed on Manus, Nauru or anywhere else, though they may be sent to specific work locations around Australia (as occurred under the sponsored migration program for decades after WW2).  Essentially it creates a series of queues that all provide better outcomes than jumping on boats, relieve some of the pressures on our neighbours, allow normal procedures of refugee acceptance to proceed without being hijacked by people-smugglers, and engage other countries in a positive process of resettlement.

This basic idea needs careful refinement, yet even so  it seems to push back on all five problems, suggesting that we can become less callous, we can cause less harm, we can reduce the numbers of people drowning, we won’t be escalating the war with the smugglers so they try to over-run us like some weird and horrific post-modern version of Verdun and we will gain greater benefit from those who arrive and contribute; it may or may not be cheaper than 5-10,000+ pa  people on Manus and supporting them for ever in PNG, or boiling them under tents in the middle of the Nauru dry. Altogether that’s got to be a step ahead of where we are; and we may just surprise ourselves and produce a regional solution out of it that means something.





Rudd and the people smugglers: at the fork – a fatal flaw?

How will people smugglers react to the new Rudd asylum plan?
By Andrew Jakubowicz, University of Technology, Sydney

The empirical test of the Australian government’s refugee resettlement agreement with Papua New Guinea will be whether there is a decline in the numbers of small fishing boats overloaded with desperate asylum seekers setting off from Indonesia for Australia.

Whether the plan, the smuggler bounty, and the other as yet unrevealed components alluded to by Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd actually end the people smugglers’ business model and in so doing end the loss of life at sea remains a different question. Whether Australia has managed to put in place sturdy parameters for the future of refugee flows, processing and settlement offers raises another, much broader set of questions.

The business plans of people smugglers depend on structures of prohibition erected by target countries, and the lack of effective alternative pathways such structures entail.

When the NSW government finally ordered the police into Cabramatta in the late 1990s to try to end the heroin trade on the streets, there were certain foreseeable and escalating consequences.

In simple terms these consequences included increasing violence and use of firearms, increasing use of vulnerable front people especially minors, the sale of larger amounts of drugs, the hardening of sales points, and the displacement of the heroin trade to other substances (especially ice) and the displacement of the market physically to other locales. We have already seen some analogues of these outcomes in the asylum seeker regimes of detection, deterrence, and detention.

The PNG plan raises the stakes in the game. While the promise is that no-one who uses the boats will ever resettle in Australia, the suggestion from Rudd seemed to be that the unsuccessful applicants may end up in a third country if they cannot be sent back to their homeland or are stateless. Some of the successful might also be re-settled in Canada, New Zealand or the US, or another “regional country”. So, the “no Australia” mantra doesn’t necessarily mean only PNG.

Even were it to mean PNG most of the time, that is not where the story ends. Illicit movement between PNG and northern Australia is not difficult, though presumably an upgraded border watch would be needed for the whole northern Australian coastline. PNG and especially its capital Port Moresby introduce some new factors into the equation.

Leaving aside the fact that Port Moresby is a somewhat more dangerous place than Sydney, the crime bosses – both Indigenous “raskol” gangs and migrant Chinese Triads – are heavily into human trafficking. PNG is also a transhipment point for major drug runs into Australia, so some avenues for onward movement are already there.

If the Cabramatta analogy helps us look forward, then we are likely to see larger boats, more heavily protected, with larger numbers of people leaving from elsewhere in Indonesia (further east) and coming down the Australian east coast and maybe heading for New Zealand, sailing just outside the Australian maritime zone.

Once they are detected they cannot be “turned around” (boarding on the high seas is called piracy), and they are unlikely to disable. They are more likely to make a run towards the coast and try to beach: essentially turning from a strategy of throwing themselves on the mercy of the Australian navy and coast guard, to running the blockade and disappearing into the night.

This strategy would require underground networks to be built in Australia, either communal, familial or criminal, or some combination of all. The more desperate current refugees are to be reunited with their families (and the riots on Nauru are a small scale version of what is possible on Manus Island and elsewhere in the future), the more likely such a strategy would find Australian collaborators. Of course there would also be support and participation through pro-refugee citizen networks.
Essentially, Rudd’s PNG plan will only work if there is a strong, realistic and effective set of opportunities for asylum application introduced in parallel with prompt processing all the way along the line from point of origin. The current government proposal that more places might follow a reduction in boat numbers completely misses the reality of why these moves have to occur in tandem, and could well be its fatal flaw. Many more places, and a separation of the escapee flow from the camp selected, humanitarian and family reunion numbers, will be required.

As Rudd intimated, the ongoing conflict in Syria, the situation in Egypt, Afghanistan after the NATO pullout, anti-Shia mass murder in Pakistan and religious conflict in Myanmar, will contribute to the demand. We are looking at hundreds of thousands fleeing in our direction.

Those numbers give people smugglers a real advantage. As they have already shown, they can overwhelm Australia’s currently concentrated front line very quickly. If they force the line to thin and upgrade the battering rams they are using, people smugglers can afford to “lose” significant numbers of clients (killed or captured) and still deliver enough of an outcome that Australia will be hard pressed to divert. They will also be able to charge a lot more money for the privilege.

All this is without considering the social damage current policy is doing to our own value systems and legal philosophies. As I suggested in previous forays into this very fraught arena, we really do have to take the whole story into account and come up with a best fit, or least worst, way forward. PNG makes some contribution, but it leaves a mess of things undone.

Some of the unintended consequences that have dogged many of the government’s decisions can at least be foreseen in this case. The government’s responses to pre-empt these problems will need to foreground either harm minimisation or “zero tolerance” deterrence. The consequence of that decision will affect the quality of life for all Australians, not just those people making the desperate journey by boat.

Andrew Jakubowicz receives funding from the Australian Research Council for a project on cyber-racism.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Can we break the people smugglers’ business model?

(From The Conversation 3 July 2013)
As prime minister Kevin Rudd prepares to visit Indonesiaand meet with his Indonesian counterpart Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, he should bear in mind that the asylum seeker problem plaguing the Australian government is a direct consequence of our “prohibition regime”.

Just as the prohibition of alcohol in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s generated crime, corruption and a decline in the authority of government, the current asylum seeker policies of both the Australian government and the federal opposition directly fuel the problem they claim to address.

Australian society is suffering major collateral damage, reminiscent of the American prohibition. The government is currently developing long-term problems for Australia’s future generations. The solutions, however, are not dissimilar, with the consequences identifiable and ultimately more manageable and benign.

Globally, people smuggling is a massive part of the “black economy”. The monetisation of cross-border people movement is now significantly institutionalised through links between organised crime, international money transfers and worried states criminalising cross-border people movement.

Foreign minister Bob Carr has been at pains to argue since the fall of Julia Gillard that the spike and monetisation of asylum seeking is accelerated by cashed-up, middle class Iranians. They are fleeing the economic disaster of Iran caused by international sanctions – Australian included – against the Iranian government’s nuclear development policy.

Carr believes the overwhelming majority of these asylum seekers, including Tamils from Sri Lanka, do not meet the spirit of the UN’s Refugee Convention as “economic refugees”. Their role in the refugee flow has therefore seriously corrupted the system.

On current figures, it is estimated that as much as A$400 million has flowed into the Indonesian and Malaysian economies from asylum seeker payments to local smugglers during Labor’s six years in office.

This cash also subsidises the low salaries of regional officials, police and army personnel, as well as providing employment for shipwrights and sailors. So turning off the flow without an alternative source of income may simply deepen the strategies used by the crime networks to avoid detection.

The UNHCR has argued recently that Australia needs to ask Indonesia what it wants to do to manage the asylum seekers crisis. Current policies and practices will produce many adverse outcomes. Primarily, it is furthering corruption in theIndonesian and Malaysian law enforcement system. Domestically, it will rapidly increase Australian investment in a prohibition regime, which flows in great part to private multinational security firms such as Serco.

There are a number of other social, economic and health concerns that result from trying to put a permanent stop to people smuggling. Collateral damage to asylum seekers through rising death tolls will increase, posing increased challenges to the law of the sea, and the safety of navy and border protection personnel.

The creation of an incarceration network also has an 80% likelihood of causing significant mental health damage to detainees. Such damage would include long term social and behavioural consequences. Australians can already witness the impoverishment of thousands of vulnerable detainees in the community, with social costs for their support, and a wastage of a large potential labour resource. More widely we are seeing a brutalisation of political discussion, and toughness replacing compassion as a moral polestar.

If Australia wants to remedy these concerns, policy responses should emphasise social cohesion. To achieve this, there are several steps that need to be taken. Australia first needs to ask Indonesia and Malaysia how they see the problem and how they would like to see it progress, so that Australia can be part of a solution to rather than part of the problem. Indonesia and Malaysia need to be on-side and see the outcome as a potential win-win.

Recognising the internal pressures, Australia should agree to requests from Indonesia to identify the 6000 or so UNHCR approved refugees waiting for resettlement and facilitate their movement to Australia (or to an agreed third country).

With that reduction in the refugee load, Australia should also work with Indonesia to implement regional development strategies to replace people smuggling networks that both benefit and corrupt local power elites. This may be in the“opium poppy” model which would provide alternative income opportunities for people smugglers, as has occurred with opium growers in northern Thailand.

A policy of “stopping the boats” means asylum seekers finding an alternative before embarking on the potentially deadly sea journey, and one that stands scrutiny for its robustness, humanity and intelligence. Australia should create a new category of “applying for refugee status” visa, available at points along the supply route from the point of first sanctuary, through Australian or other friendly governments and the UNHCR.

Applicants would need to show verifiable proof of identity; an indication of what convention or protection category applied to them; their agreement if successful to accept placement in location and employment as decided by Australia for a period of two years; and agree to accept return to their point of origin or other agreed point if unsuccessful, maybe at Australian government cost or with subsidy.

If successful, this whole dynamic would essentially bypass the people smuggler network.

Clearly there could be many potential opportunities for rorting of this system. However, given the agreement to leave Australia voluntary is a condition of the visa, this is less so than currently. A “applying for refugee status” visa should be very difficult to forge and valid for six months from arrival. It would include a specific right to work in a specified location as permitted, operating something like work for the dole where no commercial employment opportunities existed.

The visa could be held until determination of refugee status, and could be extended if circumstances required. Any breach of the law resulting in a conviction would trigger the return element of the visa. The visa would be used in offshore processing (for example, by the UNHCR in Indonesia in agreement with the Indonesian government) and onshore in Australia. Any person arriving on a regular visa who thereafter seeks protection should also go onto this visa.

This normalisation of asylum seeking would provide a widely spread, cheaper and more accessible system. This should accommodate and benefit all legitimate refugees. People without an “applying for refugee status” visa seeking to enter Australia using any means would be slow-tracked, and would not have access to the conditions under that visa.

In order to close the loophole and obtain agreement for voluntary return if unsuccessful from current unprocessed detainees, the “applying for refugee status” visa would have to be offered to all asylum seekers currently in any form of detention in Australia or elsewhere. To help speed things up, they should be encouraged to recover their true identity documents from their source country or through some other form of certification.

If all these steps were followed, maybe then Australia could get somewhere in breaking the people smuggler business model. By default, Australia would also not end up with such a brutalising, costly and deadly system.