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.