The supporters of the present policy argue that we cannot bring these refugees to Australia because to do so would act as a signal to people smugglers allowing their trade to begin again. Those who hold this view point to the experience following the Rudd government’s abandonment of the policies of offshore processing and naval turn-backs.
They argue that it was as a result of these policy shifts that 50,000 asylum seekers arrived on Australian territory between 2009 and 2013 and some 1200 drowned before arriving. They argue further that if Australia now abandoned offshore processing and naval turn-backs, the results would be much the same as they were after 2008, or perhaps even worse. They believe that on balance it is better to allow those on Nauru and Manus Island to remain where they are, and to rot in desperation, than it is to take the risk of a resumption of the people smuggling trade by bringing these people to Australia.
The opponents of present policy argue that it is a terrible and unconscionable wrong to allow men, women and children—who have committed no crime and who have been proven to be genuine refugees—to have their lives destroyed by policies devised, implemented and financed by Australia.
Those who hold this view argue that our military and intelligence services in co-operation with the Indonesians can stop the boats without the need for the devastating human consequences of Australia’s policies which are now extremely well-documented. They believe that as the international community increasingly becomes acquainted with the unprecedented cruelty of Australia’s asylum seeker policies, our reputation as a callous and even racist nation will become entrenched.
The difficulty of the asylum seeker issue is that both these arguments are true. If we were to repeat what the Rudd government did in 2008, the results are predictable—the arrival of many tens of thousands of asylum seekers, the death by drowning of many hundreds, and the creation of an even more virulent anti-asylum seeker public opinion. On the other hand, if we allow the present situation to continue, the result is no less predictable—the slow death of 1,750 innocent human beings for which the Australian nation is now and will remain forever morally responsible.
We write this article because we believe there is a practical way for Australia to escape from this impasse and this dilemma.
During the period of the Howard government, the majority of the refugees who had been sent to Nauru and Manus Island in 2001-2002 were gradually brought to Australia. A far smaller number were settled in New Zealand or the Nordic countries. None the less, despite this re-settlement, throughout the years 2002-2007 virtually no asylum seeker boats arrived on Australia territory.
How can this be explained? The most plausible explanation is that even though the asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island were resettled in Australia or in other countries, and the offshore processing centres gradually emptied, the naval turn-back policy was retained. Because the Indonesian authorities were committed to disrupting people smugglers and dissuading asylum seekers from getting on boats, and because any asylum seekers who set out were likely to be returned by the Australian Navy to the point of their departure, the people smugglers were unable to find customers for their trade. Paradoxically, because the turn-back policy was retained, between 2002 and 2007 naval force was not needed.
We believe there is no reason why the Turnbull government cannot do now what the Howard government previously did—maintain close intelligence co-operation with Indonesian authorities, and maintain the turn-back policy, while emptying the offshore processing centres and restoring the chance of a human future to those we sent to Nauru or Manus Island three years ago or more by settling them either in Australia or, if any are willing, in other developed countries. Like Howard, Turnbull could maintain the offshore processing centres in case of an emergency.
There are however two main obstacles to the acceptance of this plan. The supporters of the current policy claim that any action which humanises the current policy will see a return of the people smuggling trade. This argument is in our view without reason. In part, it is contradicted by the experience of recent history, of what happened during the Howard years. In part, it defies common sense. How many asylum seekers would be willing to pay people smugglers thousands of dollars when the overwhelming likelihood is disruption by Indonesian authorities or interception by the Australian Navy and return to the place of their departure?
The other less obvious obstacle is the mindset of the supporters of the asylum seekers. They have produced no short-term alternative to the present policy that has any chance of changing the attitude of the Canberra policymakers and the major political parties. However they will not countenance the kind of policy compromise we have reluctantly come to accept.
As a consequence, the supporters of the asylum seekers face a difficult choice. Either they must acknowledge that their heartfelt advocacy will not be able to change the current situation. Or they must accept a morally and legally imperfect alternative which has at least some possibility of success, that is to say a policy framework that has some chance of convincing the public servants and the politicians that there is a way that the refugees marooned on Nauru and Manus Island can be brought to Australia without a return to the situation experienced during the Rudd and Gillard years.
For both the supporters of the current policy and supporters of the asylum seekers there is accordingly some soul-searching to do. Supporters of the current policy must face the fact that they are complicit in the destruction of the lives of 1750 innocent human beings. Opponents of the current policy must face the fact that their unwillingness to compromise their principles makes it even less likely that the lives of the 1750 people they desperately care about will be saved.
Our government has a mandate to stop the boats, but they have no mandate to treat people indecently without end simply because they came by boat.
Authors: Robert Manne, Emeritus Professor of Politics, La Trobe University; Frank Brennan SJ, Professor of Law, Australian Catholic University; Tim Costello, CEO World Vision Australia; andJohn Menadue, Former Secretary, Department of Immigration.