A solution to the asylum-seeker problem

A year or so ago I met with a very senior official in the Turnbull government’s Border Force. We discussed the fact that the lives of 32,000 people who had sought asylum after July 2013 were slowly being destroyed despite the fact that not even one asylum seeker boat had reached our shores during the previous two years.

More than 2000 people were marooned on Nauru and Manus Island. Thirty thousand or more were living in Australia, but in a permanent state of fear and existential insecurity.

The official explained that Australia relied upon its five-pronged system of border control – mandatory detention, temporary protection visas, offshore processing, turnback to point of departure after naval interception, and the pledge that no asylum seeker in an offshore processing centre would ever be allowed to settle in Australia. If even one element was softened by even one humanitarian concession the whole system would come crashing down.

What followed next astonished me. The official expanded on Canberra’s fears. It was the well-developed view of something called “intelligence” that as soon as border control policy was humanised in any way, a cabal of people smugglers would most likely conspire together to organise for an armada of perhaps 50 asylum seeker boats to set out for Australia at the same time, thus overpowering the nation’s naval interception capacity.

This imagined scenario seemed to me so utterly fantastic that after hearing the official I came to the conclusion that Canberra “group-think” over the threat of a return of asylum seeker boats had lost all contact with reality. It was around this time that Peter Dutton, the immigration minister, argued that, if a handful of seriously traumatised asylum seeker children being treated in the Royal Children’s Hospital were not returned to a detention centre in Melbourne, it would not be too long before Australian naval officers would be retrieving the bodies of drowned asylum seekers from the ocean.

What was rather terrifying was that the official I talked to was both a decent human being and self-evidently sincere. Clearly, officials responsible for border control had been traumatised by the fact that between 2010 and 2013, during the Gillard years, some 50,000 asylum seekers on some 800 boats had reached Australia’s shores. Over the question of border control, “Canberra” had lost its collective mind.

As we now know, throughout 2016 the Turnbull government recognised that the asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island could not be left to rot indefinitely in a situation certain both to break their spirits and their bodies and to earn for Australia the reputation as a vicious, selfish, ruthless and possibly racist nation among liberal-minded thinkers in every country across the globe. In semi-secret, a diplomat of ambassadorial rank was dispatched in search of a suitable country willing to offer settlement to the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island. In November, the Turnbull government announced that such a country – the United States – had indeed been found.

Clearly a deal had been done. Australia would settle refugees from Central America. The United States would settle refugees on Nauru and Manus Island. Then and still now, details – who exactly, how many, when – were not clear. Even more disturbingly, following the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, no one can be sure whether the US will honour its side of the bargain.

The Turnbull government’s announcement of the US deal was accompanied by military bombast and a preposterous legislative proposal that reflected with precision Canberra’s group-think and its loss of touch with reality over the supposed asylum-seeker threat.

On 14 November, Malcolm Turnbull announced nothing less than the “largest maritime operation” in Australia’s peacetime history aimed at intercepting asylum seeker boats. In addition to the already deployed six Armidale class ships, there would be an Anzac class warship or guided missile frigate plus a substantial increase in air forces plus several additional patrol boats. All this was called Australia’s new “ring of steel”.

For his part, Peter Dutton introduced extraordinarily foolish, cruel and pointless legislation into the parliament that would prevent every asylum seeker on Nauru and Manus Island – even after settlement in the United States or elsewhere, even after 50 years, even if they had family in Australia – from ever being allowed to visit our shores.

The logic was quite insane. Apparently the minister believed that, without this legislation, asylum seekers would be willing to pay people smugglers thousands of dollars for the privilege of setting out for Australia in a boat with a real likelihood of sinking, with a near-certainty of being intercepted by the Australian Navy and returned to point of departure, with a minuscule chance of reaching Australia, and with the certainty if they reached Australia of being transferred to Nauru for a period of indefinite detention. Thankfully, because of Labor and cross-bench resistance, Dutton’s preposterous legislation was quickly and quietly withdrawn.

A month has now passed since the Turnbull government’s announcement. Even though the whole border control policy is still hidden behind an indefensible anti-democratic wall of secrecy, so far as one can tell not a single asylum seeker boat has left Indonesia or anywhere else for Australia. Things might change, but on present indications it seems as though Canberra’s fears about armadas of asylum seeker boats setting out for Australia at the slightest sign of a softening of our five-pronged deterrence system were what they always appeared to be – symptoms of a fevered imagination. As so often in history, “intelligence” has proved itself disconnected from intelligence in the really existing world and from what might justly be called common sense.

The evidence is now becoming clear. There has been no sign of a resumption of the people-smuggler trade following the deal with the United States for the settlement of the people on Nauru and Manus Island. While Australia retains its policy of naval interception and return, where possible, to the point of departure, there will be no return to the asylum seeker situation of 2010–2013 and thus no likely prospect of the arrival of large numbers of asylum seeker boats.

All of this matters profoundly. The lives of 32,000 refugees are presently being destroyed by our government and our national reputation is presently being trashed because of the persistence within the bureaucracy and both sides of politics of a demonstrably false and fantastical fear.

At present 30,000 asylum seekers are living in misery in Australia with no idea about what their future holds or whether they will ever see their families again. If the policy of turnbacks is retained, there is no reason why those found to be refugees should not be allowed to apply first for permanent residency and then full citizenship, as in Australian history every other refugee wave has been.

At present there are, in addition, 380 or so people from Nauru or Manus Island who are in Australia because of their own severe physical or mental illness or because of the illness of a member of their family. With the policy of turnbacks, there is no reason why they cannot be allowed to stay here.

In the new year we shall learn how many (if any) refugees are to be settled in the United States. There are certain however to be very many refugees on Nauru and especially on Manus Island who the United States or other countries will not settle. It is not difficult to imagine the excruciating pain and despair that those who are rejected after their hopes have been raised will feel. Almost certainly, significant numbers of asylum seekers, we now know, will not set out for Australia while the policy of turnbacks is retained. There is no reason, therefore, why those marooned on Nauru and Manus Island cannot be settled in Australia, as the equivalent cohort was during the Howard years.

After 15 years of bitterness, experiment and cruelty, Australia’s asylum seeker problem has almost certainly been solved. Why we have done what we have done over the past 15 years can be explained without recourse to negative stereotypes about the eternal character of the nation. Without any adverse consequence, the 15 years of cruelty can be ended. A new chapter of humanly decent policy with regard to asylum seekers, more reflective of the many fine and generous impulses in our history of welcoming refugees, can at long last be opened. For pity’s sake, let it be.

This article first appeared in The Monthly.

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