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Issue #1601      July 10, 2013

Asylum seeker policy disgrace

The “debate” over asylum seekers sank to new lows last week. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr, declared that “up to 100 percent” of asylum seekers arriving by boat in recent times were “economic migrants” and not refugees. The minister had detected a “changing profile” among the recent arrivals that prompted his media comments. The insight is dubious given that, for almost a year, there have been no applications for refugee status by boat arrivals processed by Australian authorities. This was part of the federal government’s “no advantage” policy for those coming on boats. Detention in camps on Manus Island and Nauru formed the other part of the approach designed to punish asylum seekers and deter others from appealing for refuge in Australia.

Carr was foreshadowing the “tougher, harder-edged” approach to asylum seeker policy. It is poll-driven cynicism at it worst. The senator believes the continuing surge in “irregular maritime migration” is the main issue facing the recycled Rudd government. Labor’s electoral strategists have concluded that Abbott’s promise to “turn back the boats” has appeal in marginal electorates. Rudd was quick to declare there would be a swing further to the right on asylum seekers during his second shift as PM.

This display of opportunism is damaging Australia’s international reputation, which has already taken a battering on this issue and for its involvement in refugee-generating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Prime Minister stunned listeners at his first press conference last week with the claim that physically turning back asylum seeker boats to Indonesia could provoke a naval conflict. The “turn back the boats” threat is one of the very few points of difference in the approaches of Labor and the Coalition. In every other respect, the ALP has joined the Coalition in a strategy of creating fear and then, hopefully, riding it into office.

Who can be harshest?

The “debate” between the two major parties in the Australian parliament is now reduced to who can present the least welcoming face to would-be refugees. In recent times, a fig-leaf of “concern” for the safety of the passengers on board the boats carrying them towards Australia has been drawn over a patently xenophobic policy attitude. The new Immigration Minister, Tony Burke, tries to sound compassionate but his message is harsh. When asked whether recent arrivals might be able to work in order to lead a more dignified life in Australia, the ultimate answer was “no”.

“My principle on work rights is I would always prefer people to be in the workforce than on welfare benefits,” Mr Burke said. “But we have a real policy challenge when the right to work is being marketed as a reason for people to get on boats – and that was why the decision on work rights was made and I support it.”

The government is also looking at work for the dole-style obligations for asylum seekers. It may consider restricting their access to refugee tribunals and the courts. Senator Carr speculated publicly that acceptance rates for refugee status have been too high. The suggestion is that Australian authorities are soft on applicants and that this leniency has to stop. Refugee rights groups are outraged by the claims. Authorities apply the same definitions for refugee status that are used throughout the world. Preventing access to tribunals and courts would be a breach of undertakings under the UN Convention on Refugees.

Myth busted

Labor and the Coalition pedal the myth that self-interested, queue-jumping migrants are playing the Australian people for mugs. The reason there is a surge in arrivals by boat, they say, is that it is too easy to fool authorities regarding the threats to the applicants’ safety in their country of origin. All the government needs to do to “fix” the situation is to make the experience of seeking asylum so unpleasant that the flow of supposed economic migrants will stop. The Coalition hammers the message day in and day out that Howard “stopped the boats” by applying this prescription.

The government denies the modern-day relevance of the former PM’s approach and the Coalition’s claim to have stemmed the flow of boat arrivals. On this question, at least, the government is telling the truth. The latest UNHCR report shows that the “surge” in the refugee numbers is a worldwide phenomenon. There were 45.1 million people displaced from their homes last year as a result of conflict. The numbers began their steep climb in 2006-07, i.e. just after Howard’s miraculous reign.

And, contrary to the notions pushed by both major parties, refugees are not making a bee-line for presumably soft, first-world countries like Australia in some sort of effort to make the very best of a bad situation. An increased proportion of the world’s refugees (over 80 percent) are located in developing countries like Pakistan and Iran. Germany is rare among wealthier nations by hosting 589,700 refugees. Australia is a lowly 49th on the list of host countries. Its intake of 30,000 refugees and 20,000 asylum seekers in 2012 is pretty light-weight on the international scale. The intake per head of population is headed up by countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Chad; not by Australia.

The bi-partisan generosity shown to refugees from Indo-China during the 1970s and 1980s – no doubt with a bit of anti-Communist expediency built in – has long been ditched and replaced with a shared “fortress Australia” stance. Any illusions that Rudd might try to revive the more humane policies he took to the electorate in 2007 to widespread approval were well and truly dashed last week.   

Next article – Editorial – ALP whitewash

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