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Issue #1633      April 2, 2014

An alternative to indefinite detention of refugees

During the 2013 election campaign, both major parties engaged in a competition to outdo each other in their promises to mistreat boat people. The theory was that this would deter others from seeking protection here.

As it happens, the boats kept coming, even during the monsoon season in late 2013 and early 2014.

Promising to treat innocent people badly is not usually a vote winner. In most cases it would be seen as a mark of depravity. But in any event, the argument starts at the wrong place. It starts with the Coalition’s oft-repeated statement that boat people are “illegals”. It starts from the language of “border protection” and “queue jumping”: language calculated to make the public think boat people are undesirables, people to be feared, people we need to be protected from.

The fact is that boat people do not break any law by coming here the way they do. Over the past 15 years, more than 90 percent of them have ultimately been assessed as refugees entitled to our protection. Their arrival rate in the 12 months to June 30, 2013 was much higher than the historic average, but even so, it represented only four weeks’ ordinary population growth. While 25,000 boat people arrived in Australia in those 12 months, we received 200,000 new permanent migrants and 4 million visitors during the same time. Boat people do not present a demographic problem for Australia.

Spooked by tabloid scare-mongering, both major parties chose deterrent policies: treat them harshly; push them off to small, impoverished Pacific neighbours. The low point of this was the Coalition bringing in the military to deal with the “emergency”. This, and the language of ‘war’, was calculated to make the public at large feel that Australia is under attack, which is so ludicrous as to be an insult.

The spectacular cost of these measures passes without complaint because it is seen as a kind of protection. While it is difficult to separate out the various components of the cost, on current estimates, we are spending about $4 billion each year trying to evade our responsibilities under the Refugees Convention.

So, how better to deal with boat people?

First, it is essential for a political leader to show some actual leadership by explaining the facts: boat people are not “illegals”; they are practically certain to be refugees; we deliberately, consciously mistreat them for political purposes; it costs us a fortune to treat them this way. I do not advocate an open borders policy. Initial detention for people who arrive without papers is reasonable. But it should be limited to one month, for preliminary health and security checks. After that, release them on interim visas with the following conditions:

  • They must stay in contact with the Department until their refugee status has been decided.
  • They are allowed to work or study.
  • They have access to Centrelink and Medicare benefits.
  • Until their refugee status is determined, they must live in specified rural or regional towns. There are plenty of country towns which are slowly shrinking as people leave. The National Farmers’ Federation estimates that there are 96,000 unfilled jobs in country areas – the likelihood is that many asylum seekers would get jobs.

If this approach were adopted, and if every asylum seeker remained on benefits, it would cost about $30,000 per person per year, making a generous allowance for administrative overheads. Even assuming a continued arrival rate matching 2012-2013, the total cost would be about $750,000,000 per year. That is to be compared with the current cost of about $4,000,000,000 per year. More importantly, all that money would be spent in the local economy of country towns: on accommodation, food and clothing. There are plenty of country towns in Australia that would be enthusiastic to receive that sort of economic stimulus.

This new approach would save us more than $3 billion a year. It would also avoid all the massive psychiatric harm which is caused by locking up innocent people indefinitely.

If an Australian government could be persuaded to adopt an approach like this, I would urge it to use part of the money saved to create benefits within the community. A billion dollars a year could be turned to creating more public housing for homeless Australians; another billion dollars a year could be applied to building schools or hospitals or other infrastructure projects, or used to reduce the deficit or reverse tertiary education funding cuts.

We would still save at least a billion dollars a year. That is one thousand million dollars: quite a lot considering how much hand-wringing went into the decision not to give SPC Ardmona $25 million to help it restructure.

There are many ways these ideas could be implemented. A few billion dollars a year can be used to damage asylum seekers profoundly, or it can be used for the benefit of the community in which asylum seekers live pending refugee status determination. But it won’t happen until someone shows enough leadership that we are behaving badly because we have been misled about the character of the people who wash up on our shores.

The Beacon

Next article – Hackles raised over draft Cape York plan

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